It is very still as the hottest temperatures of the year are reached and the long drought continues. The beginning of August is marked by Lammas, Loaf Mass Day celebrating the harvest of the first grain. Bread was brought into the churches to be blessed and thanks offered for the bounty of the earth. The same date is also the Celtic festival of Lughnassadh, Lugh is the Sun King and God of Light and August is his sacred month. School children enjoy their summer holiday at this time and later in life many of us nostalgically recall the long, hot days of freedom in the summer-time. Lugh’s beneficence as light-giver is touched with melancholy as his powers lie on the cusp and his influence on the wane. So August is full of signs of nature’s bounty but also hints of the year’s turn are in the air.
I decided to spend time in the woodland areas during the very hot spell, finding what shade I could. The Badger Wood, near Gull’s Isle is a small but fascinating area of mixed woodland and probably qualifies as Ancient Woodland, that is woodland that has been present since at least 1600 and is associated with particular plants and animals. There is certainly a rich diversity of tree species including: Hazel, Holly, Oak, Laurel, Lime, Ash, Scots Pine, Sycamore, Beech, Wayfaring Tree, Hawthorn, Dogwood and Sweet and Horse Chestnut. As well as this mix of trees the wood supports native bluebells, another indicator of ancient woods and furthermore, there is a large badger community comprising several setts.
I am struck by the strain the drought is putting on nature as I stumble over cracks in the ground along the footpath from the Shere Road. Bracken is turning to rust already, leaves are falling prematurely from the trees, hedgerow plants are wilting and the stream crossing the path, which in early spring reminded me of gurgling becks on the fells of the Lakes, is now bone dry, a ditch of stones. Such lack of water is disturbing and I recall the nightmare quality felt at the end of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
If there were waterT.S. Eliot
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water
In Eliot’s poem we are suspended, waiting, anticipating a fertile god who may or may not be there and the over-arching narrator laments the ruins of a barren civilisation. Walking a countryside deprived of water I feel my own hopelessness, we humans cannot bring water where it does not wish to be and it may be that thirst will be our downfall.
The naturalist is a reader of signs. The most obvious sign of Badgers, short of actually seeing them, is their sett, often extending over a wide area, holes found in different parts of the wood, frequently considerable distances apart. Research has shown that different entrances to the sett may be used at different times or by different animals. Our Badger wood is a narrow strip of woodland dividing fields; you can walk across the width of the wood in five minutes. There are two main dwellings as far as I have been able to discover; the larger one is in the first section of wood as you approach it from the west and the smaller one, which is what biologists call an outlier dwelling is in the woodland beyond the bridal path that divides the wood. Over many years heaps of spoil from the excavation has built up into mounds and old setts take on an almost lunar landscape. Also very interesting are the badger runs which show the routes they take from their homes; many setts have been inhabited for many, many years and it is reasonable to assume that these paths are equally ancient. In our wood the clearest routes run parallel to the fields and in fact one follows a boundary ditch, which is probably a historic marker of land ownership. It would be an ideal path for the badgers to trundle along as they would be well hidden by undergrowth. There is a well-trodden footpath through the wood, also running along the its length, which I guess was originally a badger run and is now also used by their human neighbours.
Following Badger trails it is possible to see evidence of another phenomenon known as Badger ‘snuffling’. These are scrapes in he ground where the animal has been searching for worms, grubs, insects or other soil dwelling invertebrate. Firstly, the badger will use its nose to push into the soil and it will then claw out a superficial hole. Gardeners are sometimes surprised and annoyed to wake up and see their lawns disfigured by these disruptions but to the nature-lover they are another sign of badger presence.
Badgers use latrines; Timothy Roper whose recent study of Badgers is a repository of fascinating research, points out that these ‘tend to occur where a badger path crosses or runs alongside a linear feature such as a hedge, fence or road, or where two badger paths cross one another.’ Armed with this information it didn’t take me long to find one by the side of the footpath, just at the edge of the wood. Different badgers will defecate at the same site repeatedly in the course of a few days, resulting in layers of faeces building up on top of each other, this is known as ‘over-marking’. Olfactory senses are extremely important to badgers and it is clear to scientists that the scents communicate messages to the animals when they visit latrines. One reason for this behaviour is to mark territory but as Roper points out the picture is certainly more complex, for example the scent may indicate reproductive receptivity, encouraging males to enter a particular territory. This would have the added advantage of creating a diverse gene pool, if outsider males were ‘invited’ into another territory. My walk, which continued along the path to Lukyns Farm and then doubled back to Bramblehurst, revealed five more extensive latrines over a wide area. Badgers travel quite considerable distances but this indicates the presence of quite large numbers. I know it sounds a bit cranky to get excited by a pile of poo but it does open up the world of these wonderful animals.
Ewhurst provides good habitat for Badgers and the sad evidence of road-kill suggests a large overall population. It would be interesting to compile a complete list of sites in the area, though unfortunately I know of one large sett near the Cobblers Brook which has been fenced off with barbed wire, preventing any possibility of studying it. I wonder why landowners have to be so mean-spirited and protective of land that seems to be used for nothing and was formerly happy walking countryside for many villagers.
Badgers frequently make forays into the more built-up parts of the village. Recently I saw a line of latrines and snuffle marks along the footpath linking Rectory Close and The Old Rectory’s drive. My neighbour has also seen a badger trundling up the drive of Mapledrake’s Farm. Again it would be fascinating to hear from locals who have spotted them in Ewhurst.
While I am talking of animal signs it may be a good point to discuss another mammal common in Ewhurst, but again uncommonly seen. It is not often that I walk anywhere in the countryside in this area without coming upon mole-hills. They are of course the curse of the tidy gardener or the green-keeper, disrupting pristine lawns with their spoil heaps. For most of us though they are endearing creatures, so charmingly anthropomorphised by Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows or Alison Uttley in her Little Grey Rabbit books and indeed many other children’s writers over the years. Yet very few of us ever see one because, of course, they spend most of their time underground. The only mole I have seen this summer was a dead one in Lower Breache Road, presumably killed by a car. The nearest to a living one I got was in Plough Lane, where I saw the earth being pushed up by a mole making its way across the lawn frontage of a cottage. I waited quite a long time to see if it would surface but had no luck. In my walks I have come across many fresh mounds and it is interesting to trace how far the mole has travelled. We came across a patchwork of fresh mole-hills in Hilly Field, just opposite Yard Farm, indicating the presence of several animals. Despite the way they are portrayed in children’s books, moles tend to be aggressive and territorial.
No doubt the most astonishing feature of mole’s behaviour is their mining ability. In his 1971 study of moles Kenneth Mellanby brings this home in a graphic description:
…as much as 10 lbs (6 kg) of soil may be evacuated in twenty minutes. This is about fifty times the weight of the mole itself and corresponds to a 12-stone miner moving 4 tons in twenty minutes, or 12 tons an hour.Kenneth Mellanby
Moles use their powerful feet to dig the soil and the motion has been described as being like a swimmer’s breast stroke. Some of the soil is pushed back into the tunnel, whilst excess material is pushed upwards, again using a front foot to shovel. The Mole does not use his snout to form hills, as some people believe, but once he has forced the mound up he may sniff the air, which is why the nose appears. Smell is the mole’s most important sense and it is true that the eyesight is poor. Mole tunnels become traps for food as worms and insects will fall into the cavity to be hoovered up.
The soil in Ewhurst favours Moles, since the clay contains few stones and is relatively soft. The name “mole” originates from the Middle English “molle” or “mulle”, but this in turn may derive from the older name “mouldwarp” or “mowdiwarp”. This seems probable as the Old English for earth is “molde” and “werpen” means to throw. Alison Uttley calls the mole in her books “Moldy Warp”, which is rather charming. A more complex view of the animal is presented by the American poet Wyatt Prunty, whose metaphors relate the way we may see the trace of the mole as a kind of writing etched onto the earth:
For weeks he’s tunnelled his intricate needWyatt Prunty
Through the root-rich, fibrous, humoral dark,
Buckling up in zigzagged illegibles
The cuneiforms and cursives of a blind scribe.
All round us nature leaves its marks for us to read, whether it be mouse-hole, owl pellet, rabbit burrow, a broken egg, a bone or fox droppings they tell us of a presence existing alongside our world.