In Praise of Badgers
Lesley Docksey celebrates years of wildlife magic.
I never knew badgers had scarlet eyes – not until late one night during the great drought of 1976 when, calling my cat in for the night, I played my torch across the field and was greeted with the sight of several pairs of eyes caught in the beam, eyes that reflected the light by turning an intense glowing red.
Does anyone remember that drought, the days and nights of cloudless, rainless skies, when all life wilted? Can anyone recall Dennis Howell MP, the “Minister for Drought”; Dennis, who brought in standpipes and recommended ‘shared baths’, while we sang “Save a bucket a day for Dennis”; Dennis who quickly became “Minister for Rain” when the drought finally ended with a deluge?
Luckily my old cottage had a ground-floor bathroom and I stored all the water I had used for washing (dishes, clothes, self) in the bath. Every evening I carried buckets full of water up to the drooping vegetables – and I swear, when the drought broke my beans tasted soapy! I had no need to weed my vegetable patch and anyway, using a hoe only raised clouds of dust.
But it was the wildlife that really suffered. It was too dry for snails and slugs to survive, so many hedgehogs died, including the little female who, while the cat and I sat and waited in the fading light, came to my back door every evening for her tiny drink of milk before setting off to walk the night. The earthworms, a source of food for robins and blackbirds, burrowed deep down out of reach – which, of course, was why the badgers were out in the field.
Worms rise to any patch of damp, including cowpats, and the fields bordering my garden were where the cows grazed in between their twice-daily visits to the milking parlour. It is why fields that have recently been fertilised with cattle slurry are often covered by busily pecking crows, rooks and, if you live near the coast, seagulls.
Worms are badgers’ favourite food and with little else on offer in such a dry world, each night the whole family from the nearby sett would work their way across the grass, seeking out the worms under the cow- pats. And, once I discovered their presence, late into every night my cat and I would quietly watch them.
I rarely saw badgers before this because they were so persecuted, but in 1973 they gained some legal protection (not enough, but better than nothing) and from then on, as their numbers recovered, I got to know them, and usually through the agency of cats.
I discovered how shy they are despite their reputation for aggression, though they will fight tooth and claw if cornered. I found out that, though their sense of smell is good, their eyesight is poor. If I stayed completely still and the wind was in the right direction a badger could almost bump into me before its nose told it to turn and flee.
And I discovered that, retiring as adult badgers are, the cubs indulge in wonderfully wild and noisy games, chasing each other through the trees and across the fields. On many summer nights I have stood outside my present house and tracked the game through each field and round the farm buildings, just by listening to the noise.
After my cat died of old age I was “adopted” by a very young and pregnant female that had been surviving in the woods (I suspect she had been dumped after Christmas lost its spell). She and her offspring were very happy in their new home and, as the kittens grew, I introduced them to the routine of night-time walks that I had enjoyed with my old cat. It was because of this routine that we became so familiar with our neighbours, the badgers.
Our early walks were confined to going around the edges of the two fields at the back of my garden, but it was in these two fields that the badger cubs had their games. Hearing the roars, growls, chuckles and pattering feet working their way towards us through the dark, we learned that the best way to deal with the onslaught of galloping tumbling cubs was to stand close together. Like this we made an object big enough to be seen, smelt and avoided. So the cats would cluster at my feet, leaning against my legs, while we waited for the game to pass us by.
In a year or two we had moved to another house in another county, and our walks covered far more territory. The valley we moved to was full of badgers, and there were very few of our rambles that didn’t offer the chance to see them provided the time was right. Once I’d found where all the setts were, we’d go out as the light was beginning to fade, sit down and wait a few yards from the main entrance to the badgers’ home.
While it was still quite light the first badgers would come out, cautiously at first, testing the air and peering around. One by one the rest of the family would appear and there would be a massive grooming session among the adults – scratching, licking their coats and generally getting themselves ready to go off in search of food.
The young tended to stay near the sett, finding what food they could and playing in between times, but always ready to dash back underground if danger threatened. When they were a little bigger and the land was dark they would be off, charging through the woods and fields in riotous play.
There was a sett where the main entrance was in a patch of hillside woodland. Just below it was a small glade of grass surrounded by scrub and gorse, where I could sit at my ease while I watched – and there are few things as peaceful and enriching as watching life go about its business uninterrupted by man. The far end of the sett was occupied by a vixen and her cubs. What a choice! I could climb up the hill and watch the fox cubs play in the afternoon sun, or wait until the day drew to a close and watch the badgers, all from the comfort of a hidden patch of grass.
Under the track climbing up the hill behind my house was another sett, with entrances on both steeply banked sides of the track. With Bronze Age barrows and field systems on either side of the valley and signs of earlier, Neolithic occupation, many centuries of people walking or riding along the track had worn it down between the two banks. On one side, to the main entrance of the sett, was a small wood. On the other, on top of the bank, was a hedge full of holes, also leading down into the sett. I had no idea how many badgers lived there, but the sett was large so there could have been up to twenty.
The bank on the wood side wasn’t so high and the wood sloped down to the valley below. So it was easy enough for me to stand in the track and simply look over the bank to the smooth mound of earth that the badgers had excavated, and the holes from where they would emerge. All I had to do was keep still and wait. Patience is something I learnt to practise years ago when watching animals. By nature I am very impatient with things, but my interest in and love of animals seems to override that. And patience gets rewarded by the sight of a badger’s head slowly appearing out of a dark hole, followed by another and another.
So it was the evening that Tom, Dickie and I took a walk up the track and stopped to see them. I stood there, still and silent, watching some of the family scratch, nuzzle each other and get ready to wander the night. But it was a nice evening and still too light, and they weren’t in any hurry. After a bit I wondered what Tom and Dickie were doing, because they hadn’t moved into my sight at all, and usually they’d be busy nosing around and marching off up the hill. Carefully, moving as little as possible, I turned and looked behind me. The cats were sitting side by side in the middle of the track, looking up at the bank on the other side. And on top of the bank, looking out from the hedge was a row of four black and white- striped faces staring back at the cats.
But there is one encounter with badgers that stands out, that makes me both look back and smile, and worry all over again about the cause.
It was an early evening in August and all three cats and I were walking along the farm road that goes up to the head of the valley. It was still very light, so the last thing I expected to see was a badger, running ahead of us in the road. Not only that, she had three tiny cubs with her. That was surprising – it was the wrong time of year for cubs that small and young, and I would have expected such youngsters to have been left in the sett. The mother turned and saw me. What to do? There were open fields either side of the road, and nowhere that she could hide her babies. So, being a badger, and thinking her babies were under threat, she made a stand.
She charged towards me, but I wasn’t that close so I didn’t move. She turned and ran further up the road, stopped, turned and again she charged. I still hadn’t moved. Two or three times more she ran, turned and charged, until she was far enough away from me that she felt safe in taking her cubs into one of the fields and over to the trees. But her poor babies! They didn’t know where they were. Instinct said they had to keep close under their mother’s side and they did their best. But she kept whirling around, running up and down, and leaving a trail of disoriented cubs in her wake. And as soon as they had caught up with her, she’d be off again. I was as glad as they must have been when she took them through the fence and over the field.
And what were the cats doing while I had been standing so still? This was the first time they had encountered a badger that could have, would have hurt them if they had got too close. How had they read the situation? Very well, as it happens. All three of them were lined up directly behind my legs, hiding; sitting very still and with three little heads cocked sideways so that they could see round my legs and watch what was going on. If anybody was going to get hurt, it wasn’t going to be them!
I still worry and wonder about the fate of that badger and her cubs. What had forced her to leave the safety of the sett? Did she and her cubs ever find a safe home? I pray that she did. But I don’t worry about the continued and determined existence of our badgers, nor the relationship my cats have with them. Despite inevitable changes, the magic goes on.
Tom, Dickie and their mother died of old age. I found myself adopted by another female cat in need of a home and within a short time I had second family of cats to share my life with. As the kittens grew they became familiar with the badgers visiting my garden. They explored the field at the back of my house and discovered the track, lined with trees and undergrowth and full of opportunities for hunting. It also now housed the sett, the badgers having moved downhill to new quarters.
I noticed that, whenever I called the cats in for their meals, they appeared among the trees where the sett was. Were they, I wondered, making friends with the badgers, no matter how unlikely that may seem?
I had been told, by someone who had seen them, what they did if dogs or humans came along the track and disturbed their peace. And the other day I saw it for myself. I was walking back down the hill when I saw one of my cats running for cover – straight down into the sett, where she was safe.