Today, or rather this evening, is the 33rd anniversary of my first ever badger watch, which means that four months from now I will have been watching Brock for a third of a century. (I should add that I started young!) I guess that makes this a good day to tell the story of how my interest in badgers began, and to recall that first meeting with one our most marvellous mammals.
Exactly how I developed a childhood interest in animals and nature is still something of a mystery to me. I was a city dweller for the first decade of my life, growing up in a neighbourhood where the local wildlife consisted of pigeons, ‘cabbage white’ butterflies and a newt which dad found when he dismantled the garden shed. However at the age of 9 (or thereabouts) I made my first wildlife ‘magazine’, full of badly drawn animals and terrible handwriting. My drawings have improved a lot since then. Shame about the handwriting – I am truly an illegible bachelor.
Not long after this my family moved to Northamptonshire. I tracked them down eventually though! (Sorry, old joke.) One result of our move was that my interest in wildlife developed in leaps and bounds as I explored the countryside now available to me. I discovered ponds and pond life, all manner of new bird and butterfly species, and the occasional shrew or vole. “But what about badgers?” I hear you ask.
Well, things began moving in a badgery direction when I started at secondary school. I remember writing an essay about badgers for English. And I especially remember buying, and reading avidly, The White Badger by Gordon Burness. This was written as if narrated by Gary Cliffe who at age 11 was taken badger watching, along with his older brother Phil, by Gordon. On the boys’ first watch at a sett on the outskirts of London, they discovered an albino badger cub. The story of their encounters and adventures did a great deal to increase my knowledge of and interest in the badger.
My enthusiasm for badgers was fuelled further when dad rented an allotments on the edge of a nearby village. My younger brothers and I would go along to help out – and bunk off to explore the wood close by. We soon discovered that the wood was home to several badger families. On April 9th 1977, we found a huge sett with over 20 entrances. In the soft earth outside a newly excavated hole was a badger paw print. We visited the sett again the next day and found more prints outside the new hole. This, I concluded, was the ‘front door’ of a very active sett. And I was determined to watch it!
Plans and preparations were made. I had read that because badgers (like most mammals) cannot see colour, it was best to watch them with the aid of a torch with a red filter over the lens. And so I made a red filter – a piece of tracing paper coloured with a red pencil and taped to the front of the torch. My brother Alan would go with me, but Robert was too young to stay up that late. Dad, who was a regular at one of the pubs in the village, would drop us off and take us home afterwards.
On the evening of April 11th, Alan and I made our way through the wood to the sett and looked for good vantage points close to the hole which appeared to be the centre of the badgers’ activities. I helped Alan to climb up an oak tree where he sat on a branch. I was not agile enough to follow and so I sat on the ground at the base of another tree nearby. Then we sat and waited, listening to the ‘dusk chorus’ of blackbirds, thrushes, robins, woodpigeons and a chiffchaff. Daylight faded, and the birds gradually fell silent. By 7.30pm there were only owls hooting and rooks chattering. By 7.45pm, there was complete silence.
It felt like an eternity before we heard any further signs of life. Eventually, sometime between 8.30 and 9.00pm, we heard something (or someone?) crashing about in the undergrowth on the other side of the tree in which Alan was sat. To begin with we were slightly alarmed, but then we heard more noise, accompanied by puppy-like yapping: badger cubs! At the time, I imagined that Alan must be having a brilliant view of badgers, but in fact he couldn’t see them and did not want to move in case he made a noise and scared them away. Then I heard something padding along the path at the bottom of the bank in which the sett was situated. I switched on my torch and there in the dim ‘red’ light was our first badger. Not for long though. Alarmed by light from my torch or – more likely – by some sound that I made, the badger dashed off into the darkness. I had butterflies in my stomach. What a thrilling encounter!
Many more encounters were to come of course, at setts here in Northamptonshire and also in Dorset, during which I saw adults and cubs, witnessed a range of badger behaviour, and came to know individuals and follow their progress. I also shared my experiences with others by organising badger watching evenings, arranged for ‘my’ badgers to appear on TV, and worked for the protection of these fascinating yet much-persecuted creatures locally and nationally. I look forward to sharing some of the many stories from my 33 years of watching badgers, along with lots of new stories in the coming months and years, through my Brockwatcher’s Blog.
One of my earliest badger photographs, taken in 1982 when I had been watching for badgers for five years. View a larger version on my Flickr photostream.