The agony and the ecstasy

Brockwatcher’s beginnings, Part 4.

After yesterday’s instalment of words and pictures relating to my beginnings as a Brockwatcher, today I continue the story with more memories of the delights of watching badgers, and of my first direct experience of the suffering caused by snares.

Within two years of my first observations of badgers at the sett I discovered in 1978, I was attempting to take photographs of them. My initial efforts did not produce very good results, but things changed in August 1980. After investing in better equipment and film, I finally obtained pictures I was happy with – starting with the image above, which I regard as my first decent photograph of a badger (view on Flickr).

I discovered very early on that the way to a badger’s heart is through his stomach. Placing food outside the sett entrances greatly improved the chances of seeing (and taking photos of) badgers, especially cubs. Back then, the food on offer was in the form of dog biscuits which I had soaked in warm water with honey. This worked like a charm, although if scattered by hand it did leave me with sticky fingers – not ideal when handling a camera! Eventually the advantages of sultanas or raisins became apparent, and later I started using peanuts in addition to, or instead of, these tasty treats. The photo below was taken during the transition from dog biscuits to raisins.

I learned a couple of interesting things about badger cubs during the course of the June evening on which I took this photograph (view on Flickr). First, I could get very close to them, either because they couldn’t see me due to very poor vision, or because the lure of the food overcame their fear of the strange shape kneeling on the ground just two or three metres away from them. And second, when it comes to food badgers do not believe in ‘share and share alike’ – it is more a case of every cub for himself, which is exactly what is being demonstrated in the photo.

The cub on the right of the picture, sensing that one of his playmates is behind him and that his breakfast is therefore at risk, has plonked his rear end in the second cub’s way in an attempt to block his exit from the sett entrance. This ploy was unsuccessful and biscuits and raisins were soon being shared. Then a third cub attempted to join the feast, only to find two badgers’ bums in the way. The obstacle was of course overcome, but cub number four arrived shortly afterwards and was faced with the challenge of a three bum barrier!

By the time all four cubs were out, cub number one had gotten much closer to me and either detected my presence for the first time, or simply felt that we were now too close for comfort. He decided to retreat into the safety of the sett but to do this he had to climb over the other three, who were busy eating and blissfully unaware of (or just ignoring) me.

Once back inside the tunnel, cub number one forgot all about me and remembered the food. At which point he found out what it was like to be cub number four, right at the back of the queue with three other cubs all determined to keep him there. And so the badger merry-go-round went on, as cub number two took fright and scrambled over the others to get into the sett……

I was often accompanied on my watches and photographic evenings at the sett by my younger brother Robert, who can be seen in the photo below offering food to one of the badger cubs. During 1982, when I took some of the best of my early photos (see for example Brockwatcher’s beginnings), we noticed that one of the badgers had distinctively reddish cheeks, and possibly something dangling from the neck. One night the reason for these features finally became clear, and it was Robert who took the photograph which confirmed this.

The photograph in question can be seen in the newspaper clipping (dated 16 July 1982) which forms the masthead for this blog post (if viewed as standalone article). It depicts our badger with a snare around his neck. With the help of Rorke Garfield from the National Animal Rescue Association, this animal was eventually caught and taken to a veterinary surgery for treatment, only to die on the operating table.

Post-mortem examination showed that he had septicaemia. The wound where the brass rabbit snare had cut into his neck was healing over the wire in some places and abscessing in others. The tightness of the noose had fractured the badger’s oesophagus and restricted his windpipe. Death must have come as a blessed relief from agonising and prolonged pain.

Publicity for this horrible incident was arranged to raise awareness of the dangers posed by snares (a sign of things to come as within two years I would be issuing press releases for a fledgling Badger Group). When interviewed by my local newspaper I described snares as barbaric – a term I still use to characterise these indiscriminate instruments of torture today. It should come as no surprise to learn that I abhor snares with a passion and long to see their manufacture and use outlawed. This is not just because of my first-hand experience in 1982 of the suffering they can cause, but also because of the innumerable other cases of badgers, otters, foxes, pets, farm animals and other creatures which have been maimed and killed in them.

In 2002 as a Trustee of the National Federation of Badger Groups (now Badger Trust), I co-authored (with Chief Executive Dr Elaine King) a report The case for a ban on snares, which concluded: “we must come back to our primary concern about snares – that in all their forms, and however they are used, they are indiscriminate, and inherently cruel. The torture of badgers and other animals that become trapped in snares must be stopped. It is the considered opinion of the NFBG that the only way to achieve this is to legislate for a complete ban on the use of all snares.” In the same year, I was part of a delegation which presented a petition calling for a ban on snares, bearing 60,000 signatures, to 10 Downing Street.

Alas, snares remain legal in Britain and badgers along with many other animals continue to suffer and die in them. Today’s announcement by Agriculture Minister James Paice that Defra will this Autumn launch a consultation on badger culling in England, brings with it the very real prospect that within a year, we will see the start of a badger slaughter in which snares will be used (something which the Badger Trust and other organisations will, with your help, do their best to prevent).

There is hope, however, in Scotland, which established itself as a leader in animal welfare by being the first country in Britain to ban hunting with dogs. Scotland now has the opportunity to enhance the welfare of its wild (and domestic) animals still further by banning the use of snares. Advocates for Animals is leading the campaign, and will welcome your support whether you are north or south of the border.

For more information and to discuss the issue of snares, visit The Badger Message Board.

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