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Wild Encounters#3: Meles Meles

28th May 2017

We regularly meet badgers in children’s stories, usually as the wise old elder, (e.g. Wind in the Willows, Fanastic Mr Fox), or occasionally as a savage and cunning baddie (e.g. The Tale of Mr Tod, Watership Down), but either way, if there is an anthropomorphic tale set in a woodland, Mr Brock Badger will be there. Adopted as the symbol of the Wildlife Trusts and blamed for the spread of bovine TB, they seem equally loved and loathed and stand in the middle of the battleground of our attitudes towards nature.

So you feel you know badgers, but you never see them.  In a whole life, a good part of it spent in woodlands, the only badgers I have ever seen were dead by the side of the road. With all the roadkill encounters and news of horrific government culls, it seemed possible to imagine that badgers are nearly extinct, but as part of my quest to see British wildlife for my Wild Encounters blog, I enlisted the help of the Lancashire Badger Group, who offer visits to a hide for a small donation.

One May evening we left rainy Yorkshire and drove across the Pennines to find Lancashire bathed in sunshine.  Meeting Sue in a pub car park, we drove to a nearby farm and checked in with the farmer, who is rightly observant about who is visiting the badgers.  The evening sun cast long shadows as we walked through a meadow to reach the woodland where a wooden hide is tucked into the side of the hill.  It was obvious from this vantage point that the many holes dug into the woodland banks were bigger than rabbit warrens and this was the home to a large network of badger setts.  The children helped Sue scatter peanuts around while I set up my daughter’s wildlife camera in the hope of catching some action.  We then retreated to the hide to wait for nightfall.

We had brought the children out of necessity, (and because they were as keen to see badgers as we were), but I was nervous about how on earth they (and I) would be able to keep still and quiet for hours.  But it was amazing how restful it was just staring at a darkening woodland. For a long time we honed in on any movement; a crow in a tree, a rabbit hopping through the grass.  Soon our senses were tuned in to the tiny details such as hovering midges, the snap of a twig and the shake of a leaf in the breeze.  As the woods grew still darker my hopeful mind was turning the trick of light and shadow on the ground into a badgers distinctive stripe.  However as minutes turned to hours we were starting to doubt we would be lucky enough to see any badgers at all, and trying to think of ways to not appear disappointed. It was nearly 10pm when Issy whispered she could see one in the undergrowth.  I could not, but within seconds, a striped snout appeared behind a tree and sniffed the air.  We sat up in our seats, fully attentive.

Cautiously at first and then with more confidence, the badger snuffled out into view and started munching on the peanuts.  It was soon joined by another and together they noisily hoovered up the scattered nuts, shuffling along the ground, while their hyper-sensitive noses continually sniffed for information.  At one point they seemed to detect a sudden danger, perhaps they had caught our scent on a gust of wind, and they darted back into the undergrowth.  But they didn’t stay away for long and reappeared at another side to snuffle around for more snacks.  At one point a fox cub peeked out from behind a tree and the scene was almost impossibly sylvan, but the cub thought better of it and left quickly.

We were regretting the angle we had set the wildlife camera, but as if on the instructions of a film director, the bigger badger left stage right, triggering the camera’s movement sensor.  He  wandered down the bank, paused to get his best angle, then trundled off into the woods.  Smaller badger also took his/her leave and although we waited a further half hour, there was no more sighting so we woke the by now sleeping girls, closed the hide, collected the wildlife cam and returned to the car, thrilled to have finally encountered the elusive Mr Badger.

All the anthropomorphising in the world will not protect this amazing species from the threats of traffic, loss of habitat and an outrageous and unjustified government cull.  A heartfelt thank you to groups like the Lancashire Badger Group and the Badger Trust who work hard to protect them.