'The secret world of badgers' by author Patrick Barkham
Posted 11th September 2019
There is a free pleasure to be obtained from almost any ordinary scrubby patch of British countryside at twilight. It can be as exhilarating as a good football match, as engrossing as a night at the theatre and as soothing as a hot bath. And the vast majority of us never experience it.
This evening of superlative entertainment is badger-watching. For years, I was among that majority of adults who had never even seen our largest carnivorous mammal alive in the wild, apart from glimpses with the help of car headlights. Despite always loving nature, I grew up in Norfolk in the 1980s, when badgers were much scarcer, and never took the simple steps to find their habitat and discover their habits.
My grandma would’ve disapproved. She spent much of her later life watching over badgers. Jane Ratcliffe was an ordinary housewife but when her children left home she began watching badgers at setts near her home in Cheshire. She learned that the best way of stopping these cautious animals from sniffing her out and avoiding her was to climb a tree. From her elevated position in an old oak, she would watch badgers and their cubs gambolling in the bluebells below. She found great pleasure in this experience but also pain: of 27 setts she used to watch, by the early 1970s all but one had been dug out by badger baiters, who then set their captured badgers against dogs. Jane joined the campaign to protect the badger, and helped win: the badger became the first British land mammal to gain legal protection in 1973. It is still legally protected today. Unfortunately, its persecution continues too.
I began watching badgers in 2011, when I also began researching a book, Badgerlands, about the extraordinary history of humans and badgers in this country. My first attempts weren’t successful but I enjoyed the sensations of sitting in English woodlands and pasture at dusk, watching one world wake up as another goes to sleep. Dusk is the most magical time, if we give it time. Sit quietly at dusk and you’ll soon see bats and perhaps a tawny owls drift silently past; feel cool air sinking; discover new wild perfumes and mysterious nocturnal sounds.
Eventually, with the help of friends, I saw some badgers in the unlikely surroundings of a patch of scrub by a canal in Wolverhampton. Badgers live in or close to many busy urban areas, from Brighton to Edinburgh, and I was astounded to watch these badgers emerge when barking dogs and evening walkers were so nearby.
When I first saw a badger nose, it twirled at the entrance to the sett like a sommelier, tasting the air for notes of promise and danger. Then, caution abandoned, the badger trotted out. Watching three badgers hoover up peanuts we had thrown around the sett entrance was surreal: these quintessentially British animals looked as exotic to me as zebras on safari.
Since then, I’ve learned a few badger-watching basics: get to your sett-side seat an hour before sunset because badgers often emerge before dusk; bring a few peanuts (but nothing more extravagant) to ensure they stay around their sett for more than a minute; and keep quiet and downwind, and ideally above, their sensitive noses.
Badger-watching is a simple pleasure I hope more of us can discover. Some Wildlife Trusts and wildlife accommodation offer badger watching from wooden hides but it’s possible to find setts near public footpaths and watch them without any help. If you do, I guarantee you will return home changed, twinkling with a little bit of magic from the parallel universe where badgers peacefully go about their business while the human world rushes noisily past in the distance.
Natural History Writer for the Guardian and the author of The Butterfly Isles, Badgerlands and Islander.