I was so lucky at school to have a totally inspiring biology teacher. I was quite frightened of many teachers at Secondary School and also some of the pupils. I found the parts of school that were not about academic learning intimidating and difficult. But science was my thing. Physics and biology were the highlights of my week and I often think, with gratitude, of my biology teacher. It was her determination that we should have the opportunity to go on a field course that meant I was given a real insight into the magic of biology. I remember being urged to sell handmade Christmas cards year after year to help with the cost of the ‘big ones’ going to Slapton Ley, a Field Studies Council centre in Devon. It seemed like it would never happen to me, but eventually I gained ‘big one’ status and was whisked away by coach, reading my first Terry Pratchett (Equal Rites), to Devon. The whole week away was exceptional – I learned things about myself and about science that opened many doors. I can’t single out one experience that stands out as the whole thing was an unforgettable experience from rock pools to ancient Dartmoor woodland, from sand dune succession to cliff erosion to pond dipping, but one activity that week was a walk out in the evening to see badgers.
I remember, walking single file along a path, ambling down the edge of a field in the evening light. Passing through gateways and along hedgerows, we dropped into trees then to a woodland clearing. In the clearing was the entrance to a sett. We had been told to sit on some fallen tree trunks; the class was mostly, and very unusually, quiet. Peanut butter sandwiches were distributed round the ground in front of the sett entrance, and we waited. I’d done this before – this waiting bit – but I’d never seen badgers. I remember the anticipation as we sat waiting, the disappointment when the clown of the class made noise and I thought the badgers wouldn’t come out – and finally the thrill of seeing real, living, wild badgers. I also remember being surprised at how small they were. I have seen badgers enough times now that I have lost count, but each time the thrill is still there. It is always a highlight.
The fact that there were badger setts in our woods really added to the impetus to buy this particular piece of woodland. I know opinion is (often very strongly) divided on the subject, but I am very firmly in the ‘love badger’ camp. I have not seen our badgers with my own eyes, though I have glimpses of them from our camera trap, but over the last year I feel I have become more intimately acquainted with them, than with any other badger I have actually seen in the fur.
At the moment, there are signs of badgers all through the wood. Dung pits and latrines are popping up in places they have not been seen before, footprints can be found all through the woods. Sett entrances are becoming newly mounded with old bedding and freshly dug earth. Paths are dug up ferociously; all along their lengths, pock marked with pits where bugs and earthworms have been excavated. Scratching posts are being utilised, paths trodden, logs ripped apart in the search for food.
I like to think of our badgers as a distinguished family, going back over the centuries, living safe in the wood; but it is not true. In the 18th Century, badgers were, if not extinct, pretty close to it in our neck of the woods. They have made a come back, but they are still being persecuted. Almost the first thing we saw on our first visit to look at the woods was a sett that had been ripped apart relatively recently. The entrances had been broken up with crowbars and blocked with stone. The sight of it made me more determined to guard this woodland habitat. I hope we can protect our badgers. I would hate them to be lost from the woods on our watch.
This year I hope to see our badgers. It hasn’t been possible up to now as I know that Joe, Melody and Amos would struggle to be still and quiet for as long as is necessary to see them. But maybe this year, I will get the chance. By now, any cubs will be born and growing below ground where there is much activity to match that above ground. In the months of April and May the cubs will be making their first moves out of the sett. It is really exciting to think that I might, one day, be able to witness this. But for now I am content just getting to know our badgers. It’s enough to be learning where these badgers live, forage, wander (partly) and play.