When yesterday’s grey, dismal morning turned into a sunny Saturday afternoon, I decided to go out and check up on some local badger setts. My destination was a wood where I saw my very first badger 33 years ago, when I was in my teens. I aimed to chart the latest developments in the changing fortunes of the badger families in and around the wood – and also to look for any indications that winter is giving way to spring.
The milder winters we have become accustomed to in recent years have allowed many spring wildflowers to be in bloom by early March. This winter however has been far from mild, the coldest one for 30 years in fact. It was therefore not surprising to find the leaves, but not the flowers, of lesser celandines, barren strawberries, primroses and other harbingers of spring. Just to make it quite clear that winter was still in charge, the bright afternoon sunshine was up against a chill easterly breeze.
Still, it was good to be out amongst the trees, listening to the great tits singing and jackdaws chattering. Other birds heard and seen here and there included blue tits, marsh tits, redwings, a dunnock, a wren, a greater spotted woodpecker, and a buzzard who flew directly overhead at one point. There was also a raven, whose sonorous, croaking calls punctuated much of the latter part of the afternoon.
But what of the badgers? Well, I visited all six setts within the wood and a couple more situated close by. Back in the 1980s all of these setts were very active. As the years – indeed the decades – have passed however, some of the setts have fallen into disuse. Among the first to be abandoned was one of the two located outside of the wood; it has remained derelict for over 20 years and the old spoil heaps are now grassy mounds. Yesterday I found that one of the old sett entrances had been re-opened and a badger-sized tunnel exposed, but the droppings outside indicate occupation by rabbits rather than badgers. Droppings in a pit at the other non-woodland sett had been produced by a badger, but the presence of just one such pit suggested a low level of activity.
It was a similar story at two of the six setts within the wood. Both have been very active in the past, indeed these were the setts where I saw my first badgers back in 1977. Most of the many entrances to these large and previously busy badger citadels have either collapsed or are choked with leaf litter. What little evidence of badger activity I could find, including dung in single latrines at each, gave every indication that one of the setts is barely active and may be occupied by as few as one or two animals, while the other may be visited occasionally but not used on a regular basis. Signs of life at two of the other woodland setts meanwhile painted a picture of moderate badger activity, although numbers are probably much reduced compared with past years. Many of the entrances to those setts were long disused.
Fortunately Old Brock is still going strong at the remaining two woodland setts. Both had extensive and well-used latrine areas when I checked them, suggesting good numbers of resident badgers. The shells of acorns could be seen in droppings at one of the setts. It appeared that the badgers had not strayed too far from their homes during the cold winter nights. Elsewhere in the wood however, clearly defined badger pathways could be seen, showing that at least some of the badgers had been making regular nocturnal journeys in search of food, and probably also mates.
As the afternoon neared its end the sun dropped towards the horizon and its fiery orange glow filtered through the twigs, trunks and branches, accentuating the increasingly long shadows cast upon the woodland floor. My own shadow was moving ahead of me now as I made my way back through the trees towards my starting point. Along the way I spotted another dark shape in a grove of saplings. A muntjac deer was looking right back at me. Though aware of my presence, the diminutive deer did not dash off, but moved slowly away, living up to his alternative name of barking deer as he did. In between the barks of the muntjac, a species introduced to Britain from China at the beginning of the 1900s, I once again heard the calls of the raven, a native bird which has only recently started to re-colonise Northamptonshire after being wiped out here at around the time when the muntjac was introduced.
As I reflected on the impact of humans on the muntjac and the raven, my thoughts returned to the fortunes of the badger families I had been checking on. Despite what I had seen, there are people who assert that badger numbers are ever-increasing and ‘out of control.’ The ‘control’ they want to see is of course the killing of badgers, which could only come about through a relaxation of the laws protecting the species. As if enough are not killed already by road traffic, snares, official ‘culls’ and illegal persecution carried out in spite of protective legislation. Although surveys in the 1980s and 1990s showed a rise in the UK badger population, in those places where badger numbers have been closely monitored their numbers declined after reaching a peak in the mid 1990s and then stabilised.
My own observations, including those made yesterday, also suggest that the badger population, at least in this locality, has declined after reaching a peak. The species is far from being endangered of course. For now, with the backing of the law and the efforts of badger protection groups across the land, the “most ancient Briton of English beasts” remains a common and widely distributed part of our natural heritage. Long may that remain the case.