Country diary: there’s a telltale musky smell beneath the plum tree

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The last of the Victoria plums are rotting on the ground. I step around them, avoiding the sticky mess and gorging wasps. The air has a sweet alcoholic tang, like the day after a big party. Peacock butterflies and red admirals flit from fallen fruit, drinking the fermented juices. Docile and plum-drunk, a peacock lands on my hand. Its false eyes blink at me, as the wings, all tatty now, slowly open and shut.

I scavenge a couple of partly edible plums still hanging on the trees, making sure to check for maggots before biting in. Many of the fruit have been affected by the pinkish caterpillar of the plum moth, Grapholita funebrana, which burrows into the flesh to feed around the stone. When sated, they will spin a cocoon hidden away in the bark of the tree, to emerge as a dull greyish brown moth in May next year.

Looking up at the branches, rather than the ground, I nearly squish my summer-sandalled foot in it. There, beneath a tree, like vomit outside a nightclub, is a pile of dark purple excrement, dotted with plum stones and nestled in a scrape: a badger latrine. It has a musky, sweet but feral smell – to another badger it is a social message.

Badgers anoint their droppings with scent from the glands under their tail, typically to mark territory or indicate mating status. The badgers visiting this orchard were most likely from a sett about a mile away; their faeces will have marked this spot as theirs. Odour is an important part of badger communication and a community will also set scent on each other. Known as allo-marking, this enhances a combined, communal perfume that is different from that of other neighbouring clans.

The fallen plums signal the dying days of summer. This change of season always weighs heavily on me, like a hangover. Already, I miss the swifts screaming overhead. I look up, just to check, but they are gone. The third brood of swallows are nearly ready to leave too. All that is left is the alcoholic tang of rotting fruit and the sweet knowledge that badgers have been here. Now, I must turn my face to autumn.

decaying plums

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