Badger Watching

Stumbling across an uneven, tussocky field after dark, clutching my camera and a bean bag leaving no spare hands for a torch is not my usual way to spend a Wednesday evening, but this was not a normal Wednesday. I’d finally seen an animal that I’d wanted to for the longest time – the badger.

I’d only ever seen a badger once before, lying lifeless by the side of a very busy dual carriageway. They aren’t very common in my neck of the woods – it’s massively overdeveloped and also our soil is distinctly clay-like, prone to holding water and not, I’d imagine, easy to excavate into smug, dry tunnels. I don’t blame the badgers for steering clear.

As a result I’d always been curious about these nocturnal creatures with their black and white mint humbug faces. I realised that I didn’t even know how big a badger was. The size of a cat? A dog? I imagined them emerging in the wee small hours well after dark, a glimpse of those white stripes and a dark silhouette being the best sighting a person could hope for of this mysterious animal.

So when I was offered the chance to spend an evening at an active badger sett, I leapt at the chance. Better still I learned that badgers usually emerge a while before dusk, giving me the chance to take some pictures. Which is why I found myself en route to the Peak District, having taken the afternoon off work. Driving through the fabulously named village of Sparrowpit, I tried not to get my hopes up too much. Nature is unpredictable, and there was no guarantee that the badgers would actually show themselves. I’ve lost count of the number of hours that I’ve spent sitting in the garden with my camera waiting for my usually regular as clockwork visitors to arrive, only for them to appear is if from nowhere the minute I’ve given up and gone back inside. It’s almost equal to the amount of times I’ve tried to photograph a new species and only managed to grab a blurry picture of a rapidly retreating animal rear end.

Walking towards the sett, my companion pointed out the badger pathways that were crisscrossing the field. I’d have mistaken these for human trails, but the grass was compressed evenly – a trademark pointer to badger, rather than human or fox activity as it shows where it’s low slung undercarriage has passed over.

As we got closer, we fell into silence. Living a primarily underground existence, badgers don’t see too well (they don’t need to), but their sense of hearing is excellent. As we settled down downwind of the sett – their sense of smell is excellent too – I tried to get comfortable, anticipating a long wait ahead. Predictably, at that moment the heavens opened – not for rain, but hail! After so many weeks of unrelenting heat it was actually nice to be outside in the cool evening air, hearing the (thankfully) miniature hailstones bouncing off my hood. The hail passed over within minutes, just as the opening act appeared – this cheeky rabbit who seemed completely unperturbed by our presence.

I managed to get a few shots before the rabbit suddenly seemed to go onto the alert. Glancing past it, I understood why. A badger had emerged and was snuffling around the ground outside the sett. It was still very light at this point – being about 6.30 in the evening, giving me the chance to get a few shots. Then, just for a second, the sun poked through the clouds giving me the chance to get this shot which I am really pleased with.

The badger continued to snuffle around the base of the bracken, until the cows that were further across the field wandered closer to us to graze. The cows had kept an eye on us since we’d entered the field, and us on them. Though they sounded really close to us, they were a good 50m away.

The badger though, retreated to the sett and resolutely refused to come back up when they were within earshot. I’d been advised to bring a book along in case of boredom while waiting, but there was little chance of that. There was the odd light shower of cooling rain, and a constant buzz as a steady stream of bumblebees motored purposefully overhead. Remarkably, there seemed to be a bumblebee nest in the bracken to one side of us, we were most definitely on a flight path back to the nest. I was amazed by this – badgers are well known for digging up and devouring bumblebee nests – bees, wax and all, so it’s astonishing that one was thriving so close to a sett.

Gradually the cows moved away and first the rabbit, then the badger re-emerged. There was one moment when the badger seemed to look straight down my camera lens, a pose that would have made a wonderful photo, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to press the shutter and break the spell. I must learn not to be so hesitant!

Then, as dusk became darkness proper, two smaller badgers came out from the sett entrance – this year’s cubs! After enjoying a noisy drink they started snuffling around in the bracken on either side of us. By this time, sadly, it was too dark to be able to take any pictures – but the sight of a small nose emerging from the bracken a mere metre away from me was incredible, and a moment I will never forget.

While the cubs busied themselves in the undergrowth we took the opportunity to slip away. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m hoping to be able to return to the sett next spring when there’s the chance of small cubs and longer hours of daylight. If you ever get the chance to visit a sett, I’d highly recommend it.