At this time of year we are bombarded with images of families.
The great utility providers, the retail industry, the agricultural product sector, technology all use the image of the happy extended family around the hearth, the kitchen table, the Christmas tree to induce that feeling of well being that we associate with this festive period and perhaps we will relax our hold on our wallets to make it even more family friendly and enjoyable with their particular products.
Notwithstanding the subtlety of high powered modern commercial advertising, the family in Ireland in all its forms is still the central outstanding feature of Irish life, urban and rural, and deserves to be celebrated with the joy that Christmas brings. In Irish nature, one mammal echoes the human family in its own social life - the badger.
Having spent all day curled up in its chamber in the earth, the first thing badgers do when they emerge from the sett is to scratch and groom vigorously to relieve itches and to clean soil from their coats. Badgers collect large amounts of dry grass, straw, bracken or similar material to line the nest chamber in their communal underground sett. At the end of the winter, it is all scraped out and dumped outside the sett making way for fresh new bedding to be installed.
Within each sett ,badgers usually have about three cubs in a family and they start to appear above ground with their mother around mid-April. What is the advantage of living in a social group? Living in groups may be a good way of exploiting food resources that are not evenly distributed but occur in good patches here and there. From the point of view of the species as a whole, it is far better to have a whole group of animals living in a good patch, sharing it amicably.
Badgers are not wholly carnivorous and eat many other foods, including acorns, bulbs and food meant for other animals. This helps reduce their dependence on the availability of prey. Vegetable food also tends to be more varied and more abundant. By using it, badgers can live in larger groups than would be possible for a wholly meat eating animal of similar size. Although they live in social groups and share communal territory, they are not completely social. They do not help each other to raise young. They do not hunt or travel about in a herd or a pack. Each badger normally spends practically all of its active periods above ground alone. It hunts alone, travels alone and feeds alone.
Many animals are territorial, defending the area in which they need to find enough food to support themselves and raise their families. A whole group of animals defend a patch of land that may be over 100 hectares in extent. Some individuals are excluded, others are allowed to live there. They cannot use visual clues to differentiate as they are nocturnal. They use a system based on scent which is produced by special glands between the toes as it moves about and when it carves deep scratches in rotten logs or trees. Badgers spend a lot of time in play and grooming which strengthens the bond between members of the group. A passing clan member sniffs the toes of a reclining badger and identifies it as a junior member. They all have a similar smell and they frequently deposit scent on each other. Each group member can recognize each other with their unique scent just as we recognize family members by sight.
Badger setts have been used for generations, perhaps hundreds of years, suggesting a continuity in badger society that is rare among animals.
Depending on the type of soil, setts can have over 100 entrances or only a few. Normally there are about ten leading to about 100 metres of galleries. Again the communal system lessens the workload of digging and as the sett is handed down through the generations, there is little to do but clean it out and perhaps dig occasional extensions.
There are no badgers in Cabragh Wetlands and precious few in any cattle county in Ireland. Of course, the viability of our most important industry is paramount but I cannot help thinking that just as the present geography of the globe has been drastically altered by relying on false premises and faulty evidence, is it possible that the total cull of this most gregarious and sociable of Irish mammals leading to its eradication and total extinction has been carried out on the basis of faulty research or even a “maybe” or “just in case”. Perhaps it is time to revisit or extend research on this question.
The winter solstice will be celebrated in Cabragh on 21st of November at eight o’clock.The last of the great four feasts of ancient Ireland, the sense that dark mid-winter will soon yield to spring is beginning to gather pace.
Slán go fóill.