Spring has many joys, but the sight of badger cubs sporting in the lengthening twilight has to be one of the season’s most enchanting. It’s this prospect that brings visitors to the Margaret Grimwade Badger Hide near Ipswich and few leave disappointed: wild they may be, but the badgers here know how to charm.
There’s been a sett at this riverbank for more than 30 years, Adrian Hinchliffe, the badger co-ordinator of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, tells me.
The hide’s exact location is kept a closely guarded secret (disclosed once you have booked a session in advance) which adds to the air of anticipation. As I follow Adrian through the darkness along a short, grassy track, a tawny owl hoots in the fields to the right.
After throwing out a cupful of peanuts as bait, we retreat to the hide and our front-row seats. We don’t have to wait long: first a snout appears among the trees, testing the air, then comes that unmistakable broad black and white face with its small, bright eyes. And before you know it, three badgers are busily munching away just inches away from where we’re sitting.
As setts go, this one is very much a des res. Below the hide, a steep earth bank ribbed with tree roots falls away to a fast-flowing stream, while alders, sycamores and elders lean in from both sides. As Adrian explains, the slope of the bank allows spoil from the badgers’ tunnelling to fall easily away from the sett’s several entrances, while the tree roots help to stabilise the soil. The grazing fields that surround the sett also provide a ready supply of earthworms – a staple food – although these opportunistic omnivores aren’t picky and will eat moles and baby rabbits if they happen to find them.
For several years, says Adrian, this sett was regarded as a “bachelor pad”. But for the past two springs at least, two cubs have been born to the five or so badgers here. Sows normally give birth in January or February.
Contrary to popular belief, badgers don’t actually hibernate, although their activity levels are greatly reduced in winter. Then, as the nights draw out towards the middle of April, the cubs – “like little mint humbugs” according to Adrian – start to make their first forays above ground. Like all youngsters, they have a knack for mischief: King of the Castle is evidently a favourite game, with mum’s back as the fortress to be climbed.
Meanwhile, as the cubs frolick, the adults busy themselves eating, grooming, or reclining on their backs for a good old scratch: particularly satisfying (one would imagine) if your claws are 4cm (1½in).
Gathering bedding is another activity that brings the badgers into the open. Having collected a ball of grass beneath its chin, the badger will hump the material backwards into its sett. Not graceful, but effective.
A coat of shadows
Adult badgers weigh 10-12kg (22-26lb) and measure around 90cm (35in) in length. It’s worth remembering that these bulky, snuffling creatures are in fact members of the weasel or Mustelidae family.
They aren’t the only stars of an evening at the Margaret Grimwade hide: deer (roe and muntjac), wood mice, rabbits and barn owls can be spotted here.
If you’re like me, though, you’ll find it hard to tear your eyes from the main attraction – and it pays to keep vigilant. When that striking face is averted, their long grey pelt – like a coat of shadows – comes into its own. Blink, and you’d think these creatures had magically vanished into the twilight.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Margaret Grimwade hide is a 20 minute drive from the centre of Ipswich. It is on private farmland – directions are only provided once a booking has been made.
FIND OUT MORE
Suffolk Wildlife Trust
The viewing season runs from on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. Adults: £7.50, children (age seven up): £2.50.
Sidegate Guest House
Bed and Breakfast
121 Sidegate Lane,
A warm and friendly welcome, and a comfy bed, await at this central guesthouse.
Minsmere has it all – woodland, wetland and coastal habitats, bursting with birdlife and other wild delights – look out for otters, bitterns and wildflowers.