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How I became accepted by a wild badger clan as one of their own
I’ve been visiting a badger sett in a valley on the Yorkshire Wolds for so long now that I have been accepted as part of the clan. Here is the story of how I got this totally wild family of badgers to accept my presence – and ended up being nicknamed a ‘badger whisperer’.
Although I had been watching badgers at this particular sett for many years, the story reached a crescendo in the spring of 2011 when I watched a brand new set of badger cubs beginning to emerge from their underground chambers. It was the last week in April and over the following few months I committed to visiting the sett daily, making sure that I walked over the sett to leave my scent among the spoil heaps. I hoped that my smell would become just another every day scent that they would become accustomed to and, ultimately, eventually ignore.
I also took a few handfuls of dog biscuits along with me each day and would scatter these around the sett, especially in places I wanted a badger to pose for a photograph. Each evening I stayed and watched the clan and photographed its individual members. On my return to the studio I would paint some of my favourite characters. By 2012 I had nicknames for nearly every member and portraits of quite a few.
That spring there were four cubs. One sow, the matriarch, whom I had nicknamed Stripey, had had three cubs, whilst a second sow had had just one cub. There were three other sows in the sett. One with a narrow face which was new to me this year, and Humbug and Twizzle; two three years olds who had both been born in the sett. The dominant boar, whom I named Blaze (in fact over the years I had got into the habit of naming all the dominant boars Blaze as the sett was taken over by new boars at least three times in four years) had caused disarray the previous year when he had taken over the sett, killing three cubs and sending some of the sows scattering to outlaying setts in the process. Luckily this latest Blaze, Blaze the Third, was in his prime and redeemed himself in my eyes by being very handsome and possessing, for a badger boar, few battle scars, which made him a good painting model. Also he was excused his tyranny by producing these four extremely playful and active cubs. The cubs were very accommodating. They would appear from their underground sett most evenings shortly before 8pm; giving me two hours of daylight in which to watch them.
Blaze’s dramatic take-over was not the first challenge I have watched the badgers endure over the years. I’ve also seen them cope with the devastating effects of two severe droughts, when their favoured food, earthworms, retreat too far underground to scent.
The year that I finally became accepted by the clan I noticed that the dominant sow let her cubs out before checking first. This was quite unusual. Usually a sow will always check to see if the coast is clear before letting her cubs out. These cubs would appear out in the open a good half hour before any adults emerged. It was almost as though this sow was letting her cubs check to see if all was well before she emerged! I decided to spend this first half hour sitting on the ground in the middle of the sett before gradually retreating to my hide (which was located high up in a sycamore tree overlooking the sett) before the adults appeared.
Slowly the cubs began to trust me and it wasn’t long before I had them feeding around my feet. Watching badgers in the wild is always fascinating but while I was sitting there I also saw some other great wildlife spectacles. One evening I was sitting outside one of the badger holes and throwing dog biscuits down on the huge spoil heap outside their hole – I even put two or three down the hole in the hope that the ‘crunch’ of their chewing would alert me to their arrival. It was just approaching the time I would have expected the badgers to emerge when I heard a kerfuffle. It was a covey of red legged partridges further down the valley. Then I saw a pair flying straight towards me, a sparrowhawk hot on their heels.
I ducked as one partridge nearly flew into my head and the other one landed at my feet and immediately ran down the badger hole, still calling out noisily in alarm. There was a rush of wings as the hawk dive-bombed overhead. I turned to see where the other partridge had gone. It also had taken cover in a badger hole. It was quite a spectacular few seconds, but with two partridges noisily calling out their alarm down the sett I wondered how this would affect my planned night of badger watching. Almost as fast as the partridges disappeared down the sett they reappeared and flew back in the direction they had come from. How they had known exactly where the holes were I would never know. This was really quite astonishing bird behaviour.
Within a few minutes I heard the sound of a dog biscuit being crunched. Then a cub appeared, 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 the summer, 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. If I could have predicted that this would be the result of my efforts to habituate these badgers when I set out on the project, I never would have believed it. It seems I have been totally accepted. A member of the clan.