Citizen science in the woods

wytham bluebells

A few miles distant from Oxford are Wytham Woods. This forest has become one of my favorite places to visit, a quiet place reachable by a few miles’ cycling over canals and country lanes. In spring the woods are painted with the flowers of bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta). It is perfect for a solitary walk, but it is much more than that. Wytham is also home to a compelling set of research programs and citizen science initiatives.

Last Thursday I headed out in the early evening to go badger watching. Researchers have been studying the population dynamics of the badger (Meles meles) since the 1970s, providing a unique long-term record of thousands of individuals constituting a carnivore population’s dynamics, and of the social behavior of a charismatic species.

badger 1

Every spring the public is invited to go badger-watching in solidarity with this research.

badger 3

Badgers are charismatic icons of the English countryside, and have special status under the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act. They are the icon of a local conservation group I volunteer with, and our leader on this evening even happened to have a stuffed one with him.

badger 2

We piled into cars and made our way through the golden light of the day’s end, then picked our way into the forest.

badger 4

Badgers live in setts. These are large sets of underground tunnels and rooms that accommodate many individuals, and which are used year after year. From the surface they look like large mounds, with nearby trees used for scratching, and nearby forest sites used for toilets. They very clearly look like well-maintained homes. I settled in next to a pine tree on the downwind site of the sett, and began to wait.

badger 6

Badgers are predators of earthworms, insects, and most any other sort of grub or egg that can be found on the ground. They hunt at night, and have a keen sense of smell but a fairly limited sense of vision. I had no sight of any badger at all until the sun began to disappear over the horizon, and the day began to change into night.

badger 5

And then one made a first appearance, its head surveying the land above a tunnel entrance. I had never seen a live badger before – sadly only dead ones on roadsides. It had a very friendly and quick way of moving, almost playful. And then it was gone back underground, perhaps waiting for darker night, or for me to leave. Over the next few hours I was lucky enough to see glimpses of several more before the chilly air and my own hunger took me away. Being unable or unwilling to predate earthworms, I headed back to the city, happy for this small glimpse of the life of another species.

What impressed me most about the night was the large turnout of people who felt strongly enough about badgers and forests to spend a night shivering in the darkness looking for them. I have never seen such an enthusiastic turnout for this kind of citizen science, or this kind of bridge-building between researchers and the public. I think there is a lot of power in this kind of low-effort, high-fun engagement. Admittedly the the group was not very diverse – mostly older people and younger parents with small children, and nearly all white – but it was still a large one. Inclusivity and diversity seem to be challenges that span nations. Regardless, the night was an inspiration and a challenge for my own future outreach work.

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