Out-foxed by the badgers’ crafty lodgers

Badger cubs
Badger cubs
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Wolds wildlife artist Robert Fuller discovers some unlikely neighbours in a badger sett who decline to be photographed.

I was walking over a local badger sett checking it for signs of life when I spotted a half-gnawed pheasant leg poking out of one of the holes and realised a fox must using part of the sett for a den.

My suspicions were confirmed when I then saw the remains of rabbits and the wing of a young rook because this meant that it was very likely a vixen was there with cubs.

Urban foxes can be easy to photograph because they are so habituated to people. I have had great success watching them in this way, although for me it does feel slightly like “cheating”.

But properly wild foxes in the countryside can be very difficult subjects to study indeed. I have been outwitted by them on several occasions.

If a vixen catches the scent of a human anywhere near her den she might move the cubs, so I knew I had to be very careful.

The foxes were living at one end of the badger sett – which is large and ranges across the top of a daleside – and rabbits were also living in one section.

Just 25 yards away is a large, lone sycamore tree. I decided that this would make an ideal place for a hide.

Since I knew my scent would already be around, I decided to act fast and erected a hide that very afternoon. I made a platform five metres up the tree and put my hide on top of it.

The height gave me added advantage, because from there my scent was more likely to disperse.

But although the sett was clearly occupied with foxes and rabbits, there was little sign of badger activity.

I knew there was another sett just 80 yards lower down the daleside, so I headed off to see if anything was happening there. There were plenty of signs of badgers in this lower sett. Freshly-dug huge spoil heaps marked out the entrance holes. Resting on top of these heaps were piles of bedding having a good airing before being dragged back down the holes at a later date.

Tracks led up the dale marking out the badgers’ pathways. And I was delighted to see that the grass was flattened all around the holes – a good indicator that there might be several cubs in residence.

What luck – two occupied setts, one containing a fox family the other a badger clan. I might even be able to see both badger and fox at the same time!

Just as I was leaving the heavens opened and it rained hard for over an hour, washing away any sign that I had been there. Things were looking good.

The next evening I headed to the new hide. But I got distracted when I spotted four badger cubs emerge from the sett lower down. They were with two adults and since it was only 8pm and still very light I couldn’t resist staying there to photograph them first.

I watched as the adults groomed the cubs who played together in the evening light and an hour passed before I remembered the fox den.

The light was fading by now and I was worried that I was a little late. I like to be in my hide before the cubs emerge for the evening. I began to feel a little annoyed with myself for leaving it so late, when I spotted something flash down the hole as I approached.

I hoped I hadn’t frightened the vixen off and climbed the ladder as quietly as possible. Within half an hour a cub tentatively poked his head up.

It was followed by another and then a third. It wasn’t long before the three cubs began to romp around but, frustratingly, it was too dark to take any pictures.

Watching the fox cubs was even more interesting than watching the badger cubs. The fox cubs were so playful, chasing each other and doing practice pounces even at this young age.

The fox cubs played on until nearly 11pm but the vixen didn’t appear. Maybe she had already left the den, preferring the peace and quiet of living alone again close by but near enough to time to check on and feed her increasingly independent cubs. It was pitch black by now so I headed home.

I woke at 3am the next morning and climbed into my hide carrying some three stone of equipment up the ladder in the pitch dark.

As it grew light a blackbird chinked its alarm call and I quickly checked my camera settings just in case the vixen was on its way.

But there was nothing.

About half an hour later I heard a crow calling. Crows will often mob foxes, so again I prepared my cameras and waited expectantly for the vixen.

But yet again there was nothing. As the morning wore on this pattern of expectation followed by disappointment continued.

A chaffinch called out in alarm, a great-tit did the same. Then the crow flew to the ground and began to peck over the scraps of food left by the foxes.

Watching the crow I realised that he was very nervous around the holes and rightly so as the vixen and the crow are arch enemies.

I finally gave up around 8am having seen nothing but this darn crow. After my late night and very early start I had only had three-and-a- half hours sleep and felt quite despondent.

I was determined not to give up and returned that evening. Once more I was distracted by the badgers on my way so this time, instead of arriving late and risking disturbing the fox cubs I went back to my car and watched one of the badgers with my telescope.

The next night I got to my hide at 7.45pm. I could see the badger clan scratching and playing in the valley below and I was torn between the two. But I really wanted to see the fox cubs so I stuck it out. But they didn’t appear and I went home feeling cheated once more.

Several weeks passed. I had to get ready for my summer exhibition and once it was in full swing and the first wave of visitors had gone home I returned to the den.

Again the badgers were out early, but this time I headed straight for the hide and was rewarded when a fox cub made an appearance at 9pm. I was surprised to see how much it had grown in just a week.

I hoped that another would join it, but it walked across to the entrance of another hole and sat down in front of it and fell asleep for half an hour.

Occasionally it lifted its head up and at one point it snapped at a crane fly – a daddy longlegs – that flew too close.

It got up, stretched and began hunting more crane flies, stalking them through the long grass. It caught dozens and ate them all.

Some rabbits playing nearby caught its eye and the fox cub started to stalk them.

The adult rabbits soon spotted it and began thumping their back legs as a warning. The noise unnerved the cub which scampered back into its hole for safety.

It soon remerged though having learnt its lesson and resumed its insect hunt further down the valley where I lost sight of it in the darkness.

I tried to get a look at this fox family on several further occasions but I didn’t get to see a fox again.

They are known to move den sites when the cubs get bigger or, weather permitting, will choose to live above ground in cornfields or thickets.

When I saw a rabbit sat outside the fox holes my suspicions were confirmed that the foxes had moved on.

I switched to watching the badger cubs in the lower sett, but in spite of some success this time around I couldn’t help but feel infuriated.

I had been outwitted by these cunning little vixens and their young family members once again.