Unless you are observant and spend plenty of time out and about in the woods and fields, it is unlikely that you will ever suspect the presence of one of the most charming and yet most ancient of Britons – the badger. For, despite a disturbing increase in the depraved and sadistic practice of badger-baiting, the badger is by no means rare in many parts of England, including our own.
Because of this persecution, it would be irresponsible to name the places where badgers may be found. What safely can be said is that the badgers now have, in the shape of the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Badger Group, a body of dedicated and knowledgeable champions. One of the aims of the Group is to survey the badger population of the two counties, and I was fortunate indeed to be invited by one of the members to accompany her on a badger-watching expedition.
Badgers are sociable and gregarious and live together in a burrow, or set, often excavated on sloping ground. They are industrious workers and can shift surprising quantities of earth. If a set has been established a long time it may become quite a feat of engineering – one in the West Country had 12 entrances and 94 tunnels with a total length of 310 metres, and it was estimated that 25 tonnes of soil had been moved in the process.
The set we were to visit is also well established; according to one nearby resident, it has been in continuous occupation for at least 60 years. The situation of the set is pretty well ideal, in a quiet, little-frequented wood not far from fields which provide a further source of food.
Radiating from the tunnel mouths is a system of narrow, well-defined trackways leading to favourite feeding areas and drinking places, or to other sets in the vicinity, for badgers are fond of visiting their neighbours. Where much used, these trackways become so well worn that they look like human paths, and in fact many of our paths through the woods probably originated as badger-trails.
To a badger, the trails are an informative amalgam of scents: each animal has its own distinctive musk, secreted from glands beneath the tail. Furthermore, badgers of the same social group will put their scent on each other, so that the whole group acquires a unique and corporate musk, quite different from that of its neighbours.
Territories are marked with scent, and with dung, which is often placed in shallow, specially dug pits placed at strategic points on the boundary or beside main trackways. Badgers are fastidiously clean animals, spending much time grooming and scratching, and have in addition special latrines well away from the set.
They also regularly change their bedding, which consists of dry leaves, bracken, and so on. In winter, when fresh bedding is hard to come by, the badgers will wait for a sunny day and leave bedding outside the set for a few hours to air.
The badger is mainly nocturnal, emerging at dusk or shortly beforehand, spending the night feeding or playing, and returning in the morning to sleep. Where undisturbed, as here, the badgers tend to come out earlier, and to be on the safe side we arrived at the wood about an hour before sundown.
Heavy rain had fallen during the day, and the air under the trees was warm, humid, and heavy with the odour of fresh earth and bluebells. The sky had cleared, and there was hardly any wind – a good omen, for even the slightest breeze can carry a trace of human scent to the set. Selecting a place to sit, 25 yards or so from the main tunnel, and with our silhouettes disguised by the background of vegetation, we settled down to wait.
Successful badger-watching demands two things – fortitude and patience. The watcher must keep quiet and still. In winter he or she must endure the cold, in summer the attentions of midges. Then the time of emergence can vary a great deal; the badgers may not even come out at all.
As a newcomer to this activity, I was keeping my fingers crossed and anxiously watched the mouths of the tunnels for movement. None came.
Time passed. The light began to go, and still there was no sign of the badgers. My companion whispered her misgivings. With badgers, as with all wild life, nothing can ever be predicted.
By now we had been quiet for so long that our ears were keenly attuned to the slightest sound. From the dense undergrowth between us and the set came the high-pitched squeaking of a shrew; as the air cooled, condensation dripped from the canopy of trees. Still no badgers. It was beginning to look as if we had drawn a blank.
Then, from the field edge thirty yards away, came a faint rustling, followed by silence. A minute or two later came another rustling, further to the right, and another. There was definitely something moving about. Presently we heard a brief, whickering cry. One of the two cubs – there are two in this particular family, both well grown – was calling. This was followed by a sort of quick bark, made by one of the adults.
The light was now so bad that it was impossible to discern detail with the naked eye. With binoculars, though, a little could still be seen.
Suddenly, there were the badgers, on the bare, worn soil near the main entrance to the set. There were at least four, probably the two cubs and their parents. Obviously, contrary to all expectations, they had emerged even before our arrival. They must have been in the fields all evening, perhaps feeding on earthworms, one of the staples of their diet.
In the gloom, the black and white facial markings stood out plainly. Moving about, attentive to one another, the badgers appeared a ghostly silver. To be seeing such genuinely wild creatures was a privilege; it gave meaning to that overworked word, “thrill”.
Unhurriedly, at their ease, the badgers vanished into their labyrinth.
The light had now gone altogether. There could be nothing more for us to see. The badgers had been in view for only a few minutes, but the long wait had been well worth it. Standing up, aware at last of our aching limbs, we reluctantly started for the path.