If anyone can steer you within watching range of the elusive badger, Meles meles, it is David Thurlow, Natural England’s warden who looks after the National Nature Reserves of Ebbor Gorge and Rodney Stoke in the Mendip Hills. David knows every cranny and cave of this delectable slice of north Somerset. Morning, noon and late at night he immerses himself in the habits and habitats of wild creatures – including those nocturnal beings such as bats, otters and badgers that most of us would love to see, but are resigned to viewing only on film. Our problem is, quite simply, our status as humans – large, conspicuous, noisy, strange-smelling, diurnal, and generally threatening and unwelcome to the animal kingdom.
I’d always longed to get a proper unhurried look at a badger, one of the UK’s largest, most populous and yet least-observed native mammals – Old Brock himself, lord of the underworld, as big as a mastiff, with bone-crushing jaws and earth-moving paws, builder of vast subways under our fields and forests. Now it looked as though my small dream might come true.
At 7 pm we set off four strong from the Rodney Stoke Inn – my wife Jane and I, David Thurlow and his colleague, volunteer warden Rod Hoskins. In David’s Land Rover we jolted up an old cart track to the top of the hill. ‘In general,’ Rod told us, ‘you’d expect badgers to be coming out of their setts around 8 o’clock in the evening, pretty much all year round. They’ll clean themselves, have a stretch and a scratch, and then go hunting for worms or beetles or whatever they can find. In the winter they’re a bit dopy – though they don’t hibernate, contrary to what most people think – but in summer, this time of year, the cubs’ll be wanting to play.’
The first spot we tried was top of David’s list, but the wind was all wrong for it tonight. But his back-up place, down the slope and across an unmown hayfield, proved absolutely perfect. The four of us crept through the grass and into the skirt of the wood about 30 feet downwind of the sett, disposed ourselves around a log as low to the ground as possible, and settled down in silence to watch and wait.
After a few minutes a gentle nudge and motion of the head from Rod drew my attention to the shadows under the trees just beyond the nearest tunnels. Something large and dark was moving rhythmically there. At first it was hard to see what was happening in the thickening twilight, but then the shape detached itself from the trees and moved into the open – a big badger cub a few months old, stretching and yawning after enjoying a luxurious scratch on a tree stump. A grey body two feet long with humped shoulders, a dramatically striped mask of black and white, a surprisingly long and thick tail. All of a sudden the badger was flat on the ground with another cub on top of it – a sibling which had sprung out from ambush in a flying leap. They rolled over, snarling and grinning and kicking, play-fighting like the hyped-up teenagers they were. Then two more appeared as if parachuted into the clearing, to join the melée. It was a strangely moving episode of play, so similar to what one had seen one’s own children do, yet capable of being broken and dispersed by the slightest cough or rustle on the spectators’ part.
A flicker of movement much closer to us, and two female badgers came cautiously out of a tunnel mouth some thirty feet off. They snuffled closer and closer, sweeping their snouts sideways across the earth in search of food, an older sow and a younger one, looking up every now and then to assess our alien shapes for any sign of threat. Unable to see us clearly or to smell us, they were wary, but more intent on their feeding than on us.
To have those vivid black and white faces and those ancient but seldom-seen presences almost close enough to touch was a magical experience. Jane and I would have stayed transfixed all night. But after half an hour the badger party broke up. The females wended their ways, the youngsters went crashing off in line astern to see what they could find to eat in the now darkened wood. And we got up slowly and went out across the field, startling grazing roe deer as we made our way back to the Land Rover, stretching and scratching and grinning at one another like a troupe of awakening badgers.
David and Rod’s badger-watching hints
Look for a sett with signs of activity – bedding hauled out, tunnel mouths polished by body contact, coarse grey hairs on tree trunks and other scratching posts.
Ask the landowner’s permission to watch the badgers.
Wear subdued colours, brown or green, something that blends in with the background. Camouflage is excellent, because it breaks up your silhouette. Choose a warm fabric that doesn’t rustle.
Bring binoculars (8 X 40 is a good magnification), insect repellent, and something soft to sit on.
Approach the sett keeping low, slow and silent.
Be in position by 8 pm, about 20-30 yards away, downwind.
Sit or lie low, so your silhouette doesn’t bulk on the skyline.
Get comfortable, and then keep very still and silent, and be patient; badgers don’t watch the clock.
Help and advice
The Wildlife Trusts (01636-677711; www.wildlifetrusts.org) co-ordinate 47 local Wildlife Trusts across the UK, Isle of Man and Alderney. Many have Badger Groups, and all should be able to help you locate and watch badgers. Natural England (0845-600-3078; www.naturalengland.org.uk) and Scottish Natural Heritage (01738-444177; www.snh.org.uk) organise badger-watching expeditions across their various regions; see also Countryside Council for Wales (0845-130-6229; www.ccw.gov.uk) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (www.ni-environment.gov.uk).
Badger information: The Badger Trust (08458-287878; www.badger.org.uk)
Badgers by Michael Clark (Whittet Books) is an excellent guide.