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How the wild badgers I watch for my paintings came to accept me as one of their own
I visit a badger sett every night
Most evenings I walk into a valley near my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, to watch badgers for my paintings. Over the years these wild animals have accepted me as one of their own and I have painted most of their portraits. In fact, I am now so much a part of their everyday lives that the cubs will let me sit amongst them, scrambling over my boots as though they were tree roots.
Watching wild badgers: How it all began
It has taken years of patient persistence for this to happen. It all began in 2009 when I decided to build a hide at an ancient badger sett. Badgers use the same underground chambers again and again and some badger setts date back to medieval times. I had already been watching a clan at this particular site for several years and wanted to follow their lives more closely.
Building a delux hide to watch badgers
My hide, which I hoisted five metres up a sycamore tree with the aid of a teleporter, is insulated and glazed so that I can watch the badgers all year round. It is warm and comfortable enough to sit in even on a cold February night and I learned so much about this particular family of wild animals just by being able to look down onto their lives each night.
Learning the family dynamics of a badger clan
I followed their story through several sagas, including a drought when food was scarce and a fight during which the dominant boar was displaced by a younger, more handsome character I nicknamed Blaze. But after five years, during which I got to know several generations of badgers as they grew from cubs to adulthood, I decided to I would try to get even closer.
A badger ‘poses’ for its photograph in an old hollow log
Getting up close to wild badgers
I wanted to be able to photograph the badgers at eye level. One cold winter I set about trying to achieve this. I began by throwing dog biscuits on to the ground from the hide. I knew that the badgers underground would hear the sound of the biscuits dropping and eventually associate it with food. This worked well and before long I could throw the biscuits onto the ground whilst the badgers were there without causing any alarm. Slowly, I stepped up my strategy and made a point of walking through the sett each evening just before I knew the badgers were due to emerge. I would then retreat up into my hide to watch.
Walking with wild badgers
In this way, I knew I would leave my scent so that it became just another everyday smell that they would become accustomed to and ultimately, eventually ignore. Sometimes I left a pair of gloves or a hat on the ground overnight. I also took a few handfuls of dog biscuits every day and scattered them, artfully, in places where I hoped a badger would pose for a photograph. An old fallen log in the middle of the sett was a particular favourite of mine and this log now features in a number of my painting compositions.
I began throwing a few biscuits into the entrance holes to the badger sett. This turned out to be a great ploy because I could hear the badgers crunching on them underground and the sound gave me plenty of warning that they were on their way up! By April I was ready to risk remaining down on the ground when the badgers emerged, instead of climbing up to my hide.
Meeting the badger cubs
I had noticed that the dominant sow was letting her cubs out on their own instead of going up first to check if the coast was clear, as is usual with badgers. Often the cubs would appear out in the open a good half hour before any adults. My plan was to spend this half-hour on the ground when there were just cubs about and then climb up to my hide just before the adults appeared. I walked around the sett throwing dog biscuits down the holes as usual and then sat down on the ground a short distance from one of the entrance holes. It wasn’t long before I heard the ‘crunch crunch’ of a badger as it chewed on a biscuit underground. I sat very still as it cautiously emerged, its nose to the ground snuffling as it tracked the scent of biscuits. I didn’t dare move as it paused to sniff the air.
It takes time to gain a badger’s trust
I thought it must have caught my scent because it disappeared back down the hole. Then I heard it snuffling again. It was burying its nose into the soil beside the entrance hole, acting as if there was nothing unusual. It was soon joined by a second cub, and then a third.
Badger cubs emboldened
All three hovered close to the safety of the entrance hole, but they happily gobbled all the biscuits I had left for them. I noticed that as the light faded, these cubs became bolder and within a few weeks they were comfortable enough to play games of chase with one another as I sat quietly amongst them. It took a month before they began to fully trust me. By then I was ready to stay until the adults also emerged. The adults kept their distance and throughout that first year never came closer than about five metres.
Getting to know a new generation of badgers
But the following year these cubs had grown up and within two years the female had cubs of her own. The other two were males and left the sett to look for mates. By this time I was able to walk among the entire family of badgers with ease. One night, just as I was expecting the badgers to emerge I heard a kafuffle. A pair of red partridges flew straight towards me ‘chuck-ing and clacking’ loudly, a sparrow hawk hot on their heels. I ducked as one partridge nearly flew into my head. The other landed at my feet and ran straight down the badger hole, still calling out noisily in alarm. There was a rush of wings as the hawk dive-bombed overhead.
A partridge down a badger hole!
I turned to see where the other partridge had gone. It also had taken cover in a badger hole. I could hear its constant loud ‘chucking’ grow fainter as it disappeared further down the hole. I wondered how all this noise would affect my planned night of badger watching. But almost as fast as the partridges disappeared down the sett, they reappeared, the noise getting louder as they made their way back up the holes. Then they emerged and flew back in the direction they had come from. How they had known exactly where the holes were I will never know. This was really quite astonishing bird behaviour.
A badger cub eating from my boot
Clearly the racket they made had no effect on the badgers because after a few minutes I heard the sound of a dog biscuit being crunched. Then a cub appeared unperturbed, just two feet from where I was sitting. I had put a couple of biscuits on my boots and it came and ate them as nonchalantly as if it were eating off a log.
Then the other cub came out. This female was the most confident of the cubs. By the end of October, after visiting the sett most evenings, this one actually lay on my lap happily taking dog biscuits from my hand whilst I scratched it behind its ear. She was always gentle, showing better table manners than most dogs I know. These cubs have long since grown and the sett is now occupied by their descendants, but I am still an everyday part of the lives of these wild creatures.
Interestingly, whilst they have accepted me, they remain wary of other people and will not emerge if anybody new is present unless I am also there. Often as the badgers sit grooming one another beside me a barn owl also glides down, its white wings catching the moonlight, or a fox calls out from the far valley and I feel so privileged to I have been accepted into the secret nocturnal world of these wild animals.
My collection of badger paintings
The wild badgers in this sett have inspired a large collection of paintings over the years. Below is a selection.
Recently I built an artificial underground badger sett in my garden, in the hope of being able to study the behaviour of badgers underground.
Author: Robert E Fuller