“You need to stop talking, tread quietly.”
I am trying to keep my voice low while still being audible to my four children, two of whom are already disappearing up the slope into the woods. I always feel anxious at this point; badgers have excellent hearing… and you really don’t need excellent hearing to detect the sound made by my family. Amos keeps talking as we walk towards the camp. The other children yell at him to keep quiet, but Amos has lots he wants to tell me, all of a sudden. I don’t want him to think I’m not interested, so I reply to each point in a whisper, adding, ‘but we need to keep quiet now,” at the end of each response. Each time Amos nods and smiles happily, then chatters on. I suppose for him this is quiet; he’s not shouting after all.
We pass our basecamp. It is still very light, but from experience, I know our badgers don’t always adhere to their nocturnal label. Apparently it is more common for badgers to be out in daylight if it is hot, or if there is a drought; a hot day can make the sett unbearably warm and a drought means the badgers have to set out early because it’s harder to find food. I look at our jumpers and coats – it’s not warm, and there is definitely no drought. It feels like we’ve been rained on for weeks. I have come across some reports of cubs playing out in the daylight in rarely visited woodland – it gets quite crowded in the sett as the cubs grow – does our woodland count as rarely visited? The badger’s nocturnal activity is thought to be linked to the worms and invertebrates that make up the majority of a badger’s diet, being most active at night; perhaps, with it being so wet round here, our worms are active earlier! Whatever the reason, our badgers seem quite unpredictable at the moment, so it’s safe to be sitting quietly early on in the evening.
We have come to the place where we veer off the main path to sneak round the back of the sett.
“We really have to stop talking now,” I say. “Nice and quiet.”
Starting across the woodland floor, we sound like a herd of elephants. Leaves crunch, sticks snap, children tell each other loudly to “shhh”. Blackbirds chuck at us from the bank, and tits alarm call from above. I can feel the stomp of Joe’s steel toe-capped boots reverberating through the earth. It’ll be okay once we sit down I tell myself. Thudding, crunching, skidding down the banking, we finally reach the place where we have cut a little sitting ledge into the bank, half obscured from the sett by a thick horizontal branch. I lay down a sheet and we all sit down. Despite my little ledge, the children spend a few minutes shuffling, migrating slowly down the bank, then shoving themselves back up with a thump, before settling down with books. An actual quiet descends. We wait.
I think about the time two weeks ago when we all sat in the cold for two hours and saw nothing, or the time last week when I went to the wood to watch badgers alone, got completely soaked through four layers of clothes by the rain and succeeded in seeing only a badger’s bottom disappearing into the distance and a random sheep that wasn’t supposed to be there. I really want to see badgers tonight, if only to prevent future revolts when I ask the children if we should go badger watching again.
At least my children have seen badgers, I think to myself. Although, we have the highest density of badgers in this country compared to anywhere else in the world, very few people have managed more than a fleeting glimpse of them. Badgers are a well known animal though, with most people able to pick a badger out in an animal line up; it is the distinctive black and white striped face that everyone recognises. It maybe this face that gave the badger its modern name – from ‘badge’ meaning a distinctive emblem. Another theory is that ‘badger’ comes from the French bêcheur, meaning ‘to dig.’ I like the older name for badger, ‘brock’, from its Anglo-Saxon name ‘broc’. The fact that there are over 140 place names in this country which involve ‘broc’ in some way, show how significant badgers have been to us in the past.
The silence of the first few minutes of waiting has been replaced by a constant, low level disturbance. Book pages turn, we shuffle about; throats are cleared, pencils dropped, binoculars and notes passed around. Mouthed words become whispers. We have been here an hour. Should we give up? Not just yet. Despite our presence, the wood is largely ignoring us. Birdsong has restarted, and we have heard deer. Blackbirds are flitting about in the understory, tree creepers are bobbing around tree trunks. It is peaceful here.
I have been scanning the sett since we arrived. There are at least five entrances in use at the moment and several to keep an eye on. For an hour, I have seen nothing. Then, I look back at the sett in front of us, and there is a badger. How do they do that? One minute nothing, the next they are there, without apparently moving into position or making any noise – it’s like they just fizzed into being on the spot. This badger is totally still, and it’s looking straight at me. The children are totally unaware, and although I have frozen, they are still moving. The badger bobs its head up and down, trying to see what is up on the bank. It knows we are here. It seems undecided, but before it can make up its mind what to do, it is barrelled out of the way as two cubs explode through the sett entrance. I poke the children, and we settle down to watch.
Another pair of badgers emerge from a different sett entrance; one, the cub, breaks away at once and piles in with the other two cubs. Badgers begin to pop down and up entrances, and I start to loose track of who is who. Without knowing the badgers individually, it is hard to tell males from females, but I think we have a male, two females and three cubs all up at once in front of us. While the parents settle down on the spoil heap outside the sett for a good scratch, the cubs are more intent on a good scrap. Soon there is more noise from the fighting cubs than us. Twigs snap, cubs yelp and snarl, logs clunk against each other as they are shoved aside by a whirling ball of badger cubs. Usually, badgers seem quite tank-like; heavy, low slung, muscular animals that can shift earth and knock down rotten tree stumps with ease. But the cubs before us are lithe, agile, sinuous. They remind me of stoats or weasels (animals to whom they are closely related) as they twist round and round each other, so fast I can’t register individuals in the blur. It’s a maelstrom of badgers. Suddenly they stop, frozen for a second or two, before bounding on as if there’d never been a pause.
The adults let the cubs get on with it. They are busy scratching themselves, and each other. Parasites build up in their fur and grooming brings relief. Badgers have their own lice, specific to their species, but this is not at all unusual. Evolutionarily speaking, it is incredibly interesting to see how the family tree of mammals can be mapped onto the family tree of their parasites – but that’s a whole different blog post.
Peta writes notes on the badger’s activities, Melody is drawn back to the exciting world within her book, Amos continues to poke Melody to get her attention back to the badgers whenever he thinks it necessary and Joe divides his attention between sticks, dungeons and dragons and the badgers. For half an hour we are so privileged to sit and watch the badgers in their evening world. They know we are there. Frequently, over the course of the thirty minutes, the adults turn their beautifully stripped faces to us, bobbing their heads and sniffing the air. That iconic profile watches us, checking, ready to bolt at any aggressive movement we make. But I feel we have made real progress. This evening, we have watched as a family, for the longest time yet, and at one point, Amos had even thrown tree bark to ‘show them there was food for them’ (I’d thrown some sunflower kernels down as we had arrived). We have not sneaked in undetected. Those badgers are doing us the honour of tolerating us.
The badger group begins to break up. Some wander off to forage, some go below ground again. Eventually one adult and a cub are left outside the sett. Then, Amos drops his fire engine book and it slowly rolls, on its edge, corner to corner, down the slope towards the sett. As we all stare, unable to stop the rolling book as it makes its way down the bank (how is it even rolling like that!), the badgers silently disappear beneath ground. It’s time to go. I quietly retrieve the now stationary book, and we all move off, trying not to disturb the peace of the evening.
It’s still light as we leave the wood and everyone seems agreed that it was a good nights badger watching. I don’t like to go on at my children about how lucky they are to have seen these animals. It’s just a perk of their particular lifestyle which has plenty of downsides as far as they are concerned. I can’t expect them to realise how unusual it is to see badgers, as that is not their experience in life. But I am sure that watching badgers adds a dimension to the children’s lives that they would not otherwise have. Listening to the children talking, I know they all take away something special from these evenings we spend with the badgers. I am so glad, because for me, these nights are treasured memories. I hope they become so for the children too.