24 July 2012

Un blaireau — un vrai

The word blaireau [bleh-'roh] has a couple of meanings in French. The first one I knew, I think, was "shaving brush" — the stubby little brush you use to lather up a piece of soap in a bowl and then lather up your face before shaving. I used to shave that way when I living in Paris as a young man. Barbers use them, or used to.

The second meaning of blaireau is the real one. Un blaireau is the animal we call a badger in English. Different badger species live in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. They're related to weasels and ferrets. The European badger is a lot bigger — heavier — than the American variety, weighing as much as 20 kilograms or close to 50 pounds (Callie weighs a little less than that). European badgers are omnivorous, not exclusively carnivorous. And they are nocturnal or crespuscular — we don't see them very often.

July vineyard view

I've seen a blaireau out in and vineyard several times, early in the morning. The first time I saw one run across the road and down a row of vines, my initial thought was that it was a big cat. But it was just too big, and it ran along on its short legs with its tail sticking straight out behind it. Later, a neighbor told me that she frequently ses a big badger along the paved road that runs down the hill toward the river when she leaves home early in the morning to drive to work.

Marguerites — daisies — in the back yard

I haven't been able to take any pictures of badgers.

Yesterday, we realized that we have a badger, or maybe more than one, prowling around in our yard at night. Badgers are powerful diggers — they are burrowers — so a wire fence like ours will not keep them out of the yard. We haven't seen the trespassing badger or badgers, but yesterday we saw clear evidence of their presence.

A bird in the top of a tall evergreen tree in the yard

I went out to start digging up another tree stump, and Walt was out getting the lawn mower ready for the day's work. I noticed a fairly big hole in the ground near the garden shed. It was about 20 cm (8 inches) across and just as deep. I asked Walt if he had dug out a plant of some kind there. He hadn't. We examined the hole and realized it was a wasps' nest that had been uncovered by an animal. The only animal we could think of that would be capable of digging such a hole overnight in our hard, rocky ground was a badger.

Early morning in July

A week or two ago, Walt told me he had seen a little pile of dung full of cherry or plum pits on the ground near the vegetable garden plots. We often see those out on the gravel and paved roads around the vineyard, and I always thought they were deer droppings. We don't think deer can jump over our fence or the back gate, but maybe they can.

The house leek flowers have finally started opening up.

Anyway, now I'm thinking that the pit-studded droppings are actually being left by badgers, which eat fruit and roots as well as insects, rodents, frogs, snakes, and earthworms. And they are known to dig up underground wasps' and bumblebees' nests and feed on the contents.

Looking out across the river valley

The word blaireau derives from an old French word bler, meaning spotted, speckled, flecked, grizzled — referring to its coat's different colored markings, in other words. The female blaireau is the blairelle, and the little ones are blaireautins. The European badger is a social animal, living in groups numbering as many as two dozen individuals.


  1. Ken, if there are no holes in your "de"fence, or the gate hasn't been left open, then it isn't a badger! They don't climb fences or jump over gates.
    However, there could be another culprit, from the same family, around... the Beech Marten / Stone Marten / Fouine... they are also around at night and leave droppings full of fruit pips.
    The difference is in the droppings... badgers use a latrine near the set and their droppings are much softer and more rounded than other Mustelids [like the Fouine]... the Fouine poops as it goes... the droppings are quite long, 3 to 4 inches in old money with a longish 'tail'.
    Both animals are quite capable of digging out a wasp or bee nest for the grubs and/or honey.
    So... check your fence for holes!
    Tim from Pauline's machine.

  2. Hi Ken,

    Sadly in the UK the times we see a badger is when it has been killed by a car and moved to the side of the road. You can usually see evidence of the set somewhere around.

  3. The reason the shaving brushes are called blaireaux is because they were traditionally made from badger hair. You can still buy badger hair brushes (not just shaving brushes) in France very easily, as the species is not protected. Badger hunting in France is a particularly unnecessary and unpleasant sport. I've seen a number of road kill badgers in the last month or so, but I've never seen a live one in France.

  4. Of course, Susan, seems obvious that that's why the shaving brush (and sometimes paintbrushes) are called a blaireau. I've never seen a badger as road kill, but I've seen plenty of hedgehogs. Again, such animals are not present, or are entirely different species, in the U.S. My blog is really for Americans, not British expats in France.

    Tim, do you think a fouine would be able to dig such a big hole so fast (in one night)? Maybe. Fact is, I've seen badgers in the area, but not fouines. Oh, maybe once — the cat caught and brought us something like a fouine. And yes, the wire fencing is pushed up at a couple of points, probably by an animal squeezing under it. In the U.S., we would suspect skunks of such behaviors.

  5. I'm almost certain that deer can jump your fence, but they are not diggers. A nighttime surveillance camera would tell the tale.

    First the moles and now this! Saw a momma turkey and three teenaged offspring on my way home from Walmart yesterday. I love the rural life.

  6. A Fouine could easily dig a hole such as you describe and I'd be very surprised if they were not common where you live. They are cat sized - often quite large, but shorter legged than a cat and thicker tailed and with a different gait - front legs, back legs together, not alternating opposites. What Bertie caught that time was a weasel - they are tiny compared to fouines. I've seen a roadkill fouine recently too, but I rarely see the live animal (crossing the road at dusk occasionally).

  7. Hmmmm. I have no input on this one :)

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  9. I agree with Evelyn in that deer can for sure jump a fence

  10. Would a fouine push the fence up to get it or would it climb over? Why do you, Susan and Tim, think the animal in question is not a badger? Especially since I've seen badgers in the area... Just contrarianism? ; ^ )

    Evelyn, I'm sure deer could jump over the back gate but as you say they wouldn't dig a hole like the one we found. We haven't seen a deer in the yard since we had the fence put up in 2004. Earlier, we saw them in the yard several times, at dawn.

    That message from Mary Grace (ahem!) is obviously spam.

  11. Ken, the fouine would go over... they can leap like a cat!
    If the fence is pushed up... you've got a badger attack... when I was in forestry we used to put a badger gate in the fence to avoid damage to the fence.... if the fence crossed a regular badger route that is!


  12. Interesting post and equally interesting comments.

  13. Thanks for the comment, Starman, and thanks to all the commenters.

    Tim, skunks in California had routes like that. It didn't do any good to try to keep them from digging under wooden fences. They'd just dig a new hole if you filled an old one up with rocks.

  14. Ken, you must know we also use "blaireau" for a "dork"/"a nerd"...
    When my daughter was around 11, she called "blaireaux" pupils her age who were, in her opinion, boring... X est un vrai blaireau !"

  15. In all my years of studying French, I never had need for the word blaireau, nor did I ever learn it. That's what is so cool about your blog. On the other hand, never learned the word hoopoe, and it turns out I did need that one! :)

  16. Mary07, did you know that Wisconsin is called "the Badger State"? And the University of Wisconsin's athletic teams are called "the Badgers"?

    Cheryl, I guess you never needed to use a shaving brush.

  17. I don't think either of us are discounting a badger as the culprit, but we probably both think a marten is more likely. With mammals what you see in terms of live animals is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you get. The description of the poo and the lack of an obvious entry point both make us lean towards the marten over the badger. We know from experience that they are likely to be equally common, whether you see them or not. I guess it comes across as contrary, but think of it more like peer review:-)

  18. Hi Susan, suddenly the blog is a scientific journal? LOL! Who are "we"? Anyway, I will continue to believe it's a badger because I have seen them around, the fence is pushed up from the bottom, and my neighbors have seen them too. Should I set up an infrared camera? Glad your barbecue was a success and sorry we missed it.


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