It’s a balmy June evening, and as an enormous, Tenko-red sun slowly sinks below the horizon, we carefully pick our way across the cow-patted White Peak pasture towards a silhouetted ash wood. We make a special note of the direction of the gentle wind – it’s coming from the south-west – as we approach the wood. It will determine our positioning and choice of vantage point.
Just as we enter the wood, a red fox skulks across a corner of the field, its russet fur and white-tipped brush glowing in the declining sun. It alerts a ‘building’ of rooks in the highest branches of the ashes, which takes flight in a chorus of raucous cawing.
Once in the darker confines of the wood, we notice almost immediately an enormous bank of bare earth, which
looks for all the world as if a mechanical digger has been at large. But no, this gigantic platform is the work of several generations of our evening’s objective – badgers.
Brock around the clock
June is a great time of year to observe these charming and handsome animals. This is the magical moment when badger cubs emerge above ground for the first time and start to play, learning the skills that will serve them in later life.
The first essential for a successful badger watch is to get there early before the badgers head out. Make sure you wear warm, dark but quiet clothing that doesn’t rustle too much. Always wait downwind of the badger sett – their sense of smell is reckoned to be 800 times better than ours.
Thankfully the wind is blowing into our faces as we step quietly and cautiously behind a large grey ash bole above and to the right of the sett. We settle down as comfortably as we can for what might be a long wait: it may be some time before we are able to stretch our limbs again.
By now we can see three large holes gaping above and behind the pile of excavated earth, with two or three well-worn paths leading through the dog’s mercury and ramsoms under the trees, away from them. Nothing else to do now but wait.
We watch the dark entrances to the sett with an increasing sense of anticipation. The conditions are fine and we’ve been careful in our approach: surely it won’t be too long before the badgers appear?
Then, just as our limbs start to stiffen and we think our luck is out, we hear a low, muffled yelping sound coming from one of the holes. Our experienced guide whispers that it sounds like the cubs are eager to come out and play.
It’s very important, especially when the badgers first emerge, that you keep perfectly still. As we all hold our respective breaths, something vaguely white appears from the depths of a hole. And suddenly – there it is! The Everton-mint, black-and-white striped face of a boar badger appears at the entrance, cautiously sniffing the air to the left and right with its moist, shiny black nose.
But just as suddenly, it’s gone. Did it sense our presence and decide against risking an appearance? No, after a few minutes out it comes again, and as it sits contentedly at the entrance having a good old scratch, we notice for the first time its white-tipped ears, its bear-like, hunchback shape and massive paws.
Finally it turns towards the sett entrance as if to say: “Come on, what are you waiting for?” to the rest of the family. Another face appears, the female this time, and she also cautiously sniffs the air for any sign of danger. But the coast is clear, and she is almost immediately followed by her two fluffy-furred, snub-nosed cubs.
After a brief grooming by their mother, the two cubs start playing, nipping their mum’s coat, chasing their tails, then rolling over and tumbling down the side of the sett. It’s a joyous scene, and we grin stupidly at each other from the sheer pleasure of watching these wonderful animals at such close quarters.
By this time the boar has made off for an evening’s foraging and it’s not long before mum and the cubs follow him. As darkness sets in, we finally stretch our legs and head for the welcoming flask of hot drink in the car.
Where to watch badgers
Find out more about where to watch badgers by visiting the website of the Badger Trust.
Many county wildlife trusts have specialist badger groups, and some recommended badger-watching groups include:
Oxfordshire College Barn Farm, Sibford Gower, Banbury 01295 780352.
Dorset Badger and Wildlife Watch, Old Henley Farm, Buckland Newton, Dorchester DT2 7BL. 01300 345293.
Cheshire Wirral and Cheshire Badger Group 01925 656188.
Yorkshire Dalby Forest, North Yorkshire 01723 367864