Absolutely not by the book

Orchis masculaI am not surprised by exciting new discoveries in the woods; the hare that I happened on by accident, the early purple orchid I found flowering in the middle of a well used path when we had searched and decided we had no orchids on our patch, the badger sett I found after fifteen months in sight of our shed at basecamp. Finds like these thrill and delight me, but I am not surprised by the capacity of our wood to continually reveal things I have not seen before. I was, however, very surprised one night last week.

“Are we too late,” I asked Mark as we drove towards the wood.
“No, we don’t want to be waiting around too long.”
“When is dusk? The book says we have to be there an hour before dusk.”
“I always think of dusk as the time between sunset and dark,” replied Mark.
“When is sunset?”
Mark passed me his phone, exasperated, “You can look up civil twilight, aviation twilight, nautical twilight, if you want.”
I glanced up at the sun, still high behind the scar we were passing.
“No, no, it’s fine. You’re right, we don’t want to be waiting for ages. I don’t expect we’ll see anything the first night anyway.”

I subsided into silence. I was just so desperate to get to the woods and into place. This was a very rare opportunity. Mark and I were alone, it was 7:45 in the evening, and it was May – the best month for badger watching according to Michael Clark’s book ‘Badgers’. I had spent half an hour before we set off pouring over the section about badger watching. I had a tick list. Be in place one hour before dusk so the wood has time to settle after your disturbance, ready for the emergence of the badgers. Be downwind of the sett so your scent is blown away from the badgers. Be above the sett if possible as scent rises. Don’t move. Take a cushion – apparently a comfortable badger watcher is a less wriggly watcher so a more successful watcher. Don’t be tempted to whisper to your companion. Sit against a tree trunk so your silhouette is broken. Don’t wear bright colours. Dress for warmth, you don’t want to start shivering. All these things were running through my mind as we parked and half walked, half jogged to the entrance to our woods.

At this point I inhaled a fly.
“I can’t carry on, I’m going to ruin it. I can’t stop coughing. I’ll scare the badgers.”
“We’ll get you a drink of water from the shed,” said Mark in his usual pragmatic way.
I crept on up the path. Mark’s feet crunching through the leaves sounded like some sort of loud percussion instrument.
“Can you hear how much noise you are making?” I hissed to Mark, between my own periodic, stiffled coughs.
“Can you hear how much noise you are making?” came back the reply.
We could hear a tawny owl calling and a deer barking. Blackbirds were alarm calling. We got to the shed. Thankfully my cough had subsided so we decided not to wrench open the metal shed door with it’s accompanying screeches. I figured there was more risk of the badgers hearing that in the sett as they prepared to come out, than there was of me coughing in an hours time.

The sett isn’t far behind the shed. We began to walk through the dappled sunshine, over to the place I had identifed as a good badger watching spot a few days before. I was clutching my cushion and a bag of dark, warm clothes I would pull over my brightly coloured clothes when we sat down. We needed to approach the sett, then detour to the right and come in behind it where we would be both downwind and uphill. I was whispering to Mark about a branch we could sit on when he grabbed my arm and hissed, “Badgers!”

We both froze on the spot. They were out already. In broad daylight. One huge badger was lying on its back by the sett entrance having a jolly good scratch. It was tricky to see through the trees, but by bobbing backwards and forwards, I could make out a second. There was no chance of getting behind the sett without scaring the badgers away. So there we were, standing on the loudest dry crackly leaves that would announce our presence if we so much as shifted our weight, wearing clothes designed with no holding back on the bright, upwind from the badgers, down hill from the badgers, with crows announcing our presence to the whole wood with their alarm calls. The big badger looked up. We were about to be rumbled. But it was just more badgers arriving. Smaller this time. In the end we counted five badgers out at one time –  two large and three smaller individuals. Mark and I whispered to each other occasionally as we didn’t have the same view; different trees were in the way for each of us and sometimes one of us would lose sight of the badgers. We became brave and crept forward a little. We passed the binoculars between each other.

The badgers were now busy, pottering around having finished their waking up routine. They began to collect fresh bedding between bursts of digging around the sett when they were presumably looking for food. One, then another of the badgers made forays along paths bringing them closer to us. It was unforgettable. One badger fell out of a tree it was trying to climb, a couple were making gentle rumbling grunts to each other as if chatting. We watched for an hour, standing almost stationary. It was so exciting to see our badgers after all this time. It was thrilling to see badgers using the badger paths I had followed in the woods. We only gave up watching when it became too dark for us to see, creeping out still clutching the cushions we had not sat on and the clothes we had not put on.

We had managed to see badgers despite doing everything wrong. But then the badgers weren’t playing game either. No one could have been more surprised than I was to see them up in daylight. But that made the night even more special. What an amazing experience – I hope it will be the first of many – and another reminder never to take anything for granted, not even the emergence of badgers at dusk.

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