My first sighting of a badger in April 1977 (see Brockwatcher’s beginnings) certainly fuelled my enthusiasm for this amazing animal. I remained an all-round naturalist though, exploring the local countryside looking for wildlife of all kinds. I was also becoming a conservationist and educator, organising wildlife clubs for local youngsters. I arranged meetings, produced newsletters and organised fund raising events in aid of the Young Ornithologists Club (now RSPB Wildlife Explorers) and the Northamptonshire Naturalists’ Trust (now the Wildlife Trust). So my enthusiasm for badgers was just one part of a much wider interest in, and concern for, wildlife. However, a number of events over the summer of 1977 (and beyond) were to ensure that my involvement with badgers would grow and grow…
In May 1977, the BBC broadcast what was at the time a unique series of natural history programmes: Badger Watch. Infra-red lights and special remote control cameras were positioned at a badger sett in Gloucestershire, and over the course of five successive nights we were treated to live broadcasts of the badgers’ activities. I was glued to the TV screen for those five nights, watching the badgers and listening to expert commentary from Ernest Neal, Chris Cheeseman and Phil Drabble. No doubt those programmes prompted me to make more of an effort to track down my local badgers. A record card in my collection dated May 15th 1977 shows that I found badger paw prints (the card includes a biro drawing of them, which I have included here), “but no sett”, at a one copse not far from my home.
The next significant event took place on July 6th that year. My family and I (plus our dog, Tan) went for an evening walk around the wood where I had seen my first badger in April. There were woodpigeons, blackbirds, robins and a jay about, and we also heard a chiffchaff and the reeling song of a goldcrest. Towards 9 o’clock I heard a commotion and a mention of badgers from the rest of my family, who were ahead of me. I caught up with them and looked down the slope below us in time to see Tan following two badgers, trying to get a better scent of them. Luckily for Tan, the badgers went below ground without a fight. Not that they were under threat – I suspect Tan would have played with them if they had let him.
Amazed at our sighting of badgers in good daylight, we vowed to return to the wood to watch the sett properly. We did this on the evening of July 23rd. We were rewarded by the sight of two badgers, an adult and a cub. More visits to the sett followed, and our luck improved. On July 25th we saw six badgers, including four cubs who amused us with their playing and grooming. Our best watch came three days later. According to the notes I wrote in 1980:
“The appearance of the badgers that night was later than usual due to a noisy band of girl guides or brownies attempting to sing [nearby]. Luckily they left, and shortly after this … the entire population of the sett, some ten or eleven badgers (all no doubt very impatient by this time!) tumbled out. Five or six adults wandered off northwards to feed, leaving one excavating a new tunnel, amidst the four romping cubs. As the increasing darkness began to blot out this enchanting scene, we left.”
Two more badger watching evenings followed, but on both occasions the badgers were wary and quiet and we did not see much. On each of those nights we left when darkness fell, Dad at the front with one torch, and me at the back with the other. The night of July 31st is the one I most remember. Just after we left the sett a terrifying, spine chilling cry rang out. We left the area much more quickly than we had approached it! On our way out of the wood, we met a hurriedly-formed search party of people who had heard the noise, and were looking for anybody who might have been hurt! For months afterwards, we were mystified as to the source of that blood curdling sound. Then, while reading a book about badgers, I found something which seemed to provide the answer: a description of “the badger’s scream or yell.” My cartoon drawing of the event dates from 1980. (Incidentally, even though a large number of badger were in residence back in 1977, this sett is now barely active: I saw no badgers there last Thursday despite watching for about two hours. See Two nights to remember – and one to forget?)
After all those fantastic encounters with badgers I wanted more – it would take more than a badger’s yell to put me off! The problem was that the wood where those encounters had taken place was several miles from my home. To be able go badger watching whenever I wished, I needed a sett which would provide good views of badgers, situated within easy walking distance. Fortunately, in 1978, that is exactly what I found, and within a few years I was not only watching the sett but taking photos like the one below (click on the image to view on Flickr).