With the advent of lockdown is was time to take a fresh look at the wildlife on my doorstep. The stage was set for an unforgettable performance by the veritable "Company of Badgers" in the Wild Wood.
There can be little doubt that 2020 has had such a profound impact on life for everyone. No matter where you live, with the advent of travel restrictions, social distancing, caring for loved ones and isolation; what the pandemic has so vividly illustrated is the value and healing power of nature.
A different way of seeing the world
It’s no coincidence in times past when walking through the fields and woodland close to home in the Suffolk countryside it was rare occurrence I’d see anyone on my travels, not a soul.
Perhaps with the advent of zoom, twitter, youtube and instagram, life was seemingly running away with itself; forever at a faster pace and these places weren’t really worth a look let alone a visit. Now these same precious woodland paths and meandering river walks along the banks are busy every day.
This has to be a good thing and for many that relationship with our natural surroundings has experienced something of a welcome renaissance. It could be your local park, garden or street; but regardless of where you live it’s no coincidence a connection with the natural world; hearing, touching and just looking at what’s around you with a fresh pair of eyes and ears has revealed a profound sense of belonging for some; and it’s no surprise in ways the “virtual” space could never replace. Such is the benevolence of nature in respect of our mental and physical well-being.
Nature is in a constant state of flux as it shifts and changes with the seasons; and it was with this new found curiosity over the past nine months it was time to take a fresh look at the local wildlife on my doorstep.
With trips to the Hebrides and adventures on Skockholm Island lying in tatters after months in the planning, perhaps this was no bad thing I thought. After all some of my best and most rewarding images for the most part have been taken of wildlife found close to home. Enter stage right the local badgers.
I’ve always found badgers to be the most elusive and secretive of creatures. Yet they never fail to inspire the imagination and what chance encounters I’ve had always leave me wanting for more.
The upstanding "Badger"
Perhaps with the advent of the pandemic we’re all harking back to a more predictable time tinged with a certain sense of nostalgia. I can’t help but think of my childhood and Kenneth Grahame’s timeless classic, “The Wind in the Willows”. The 'oldest' of the animals was of course “Badger”. An upstanding and solitary character who cared deeply for his friends; Badger nonetheless valued his privacy tucked away in his underground home in the “Wild Wood”. As his friend Mole so poignantly remarked “He seemed, by all accounts, to be such an important personage and, though rarely visible, to make his unseen influence felt by everybody about the place."
And so, with Mole’s thoughts at the forefront of my mind and with the onset of June, I found myself on the edge of my very own “Wild Wood” along the margins of the fields close to home.
An ideal habitat for badgers being a mixture of woodland and open country; but that said they are remarkably resilient and known to thrive in more urban areas if they can find sufficient cover. Gardens, parks, embankments, cemeteries and allotments are an obvious starting point to look as they provide the best opportunity for badgers to live and hunt close to home with less chance of being disturbed.
No place like home
A badger’s home for the uninitiated is a network of tunnels and chambers called a sett and signs of activity are not hard to spot. A series of large “horseshoe” shaped holes typically mark the entrance to a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers which can often stretch up to 100ft in size. If the sides of the holes appear smooth and there are freshly dug soil heaps or scrape marks nearby, you’re in luck as the chances are the sett is in use.
Badgers are remarkably house proud, much like our protagonist in Graeme’s book and will attentively clean out their sleeping chambers with meticulous precision, especially during the breeding season. Old bedding such as grass and bracken is a particularly positive sign of activity when discarded close to the entrance so there’s always an abundance of clues to look out for.
It’s not unheard of to see badgers during the day but for the most part they are nocturnal creatures.
However, with the onset of summer when long, balmy evenings slip effortlessly into dusk and the movement of life seems to fade into stillness; something very special happens away from prying eyes when eager paws stir. It’s perhaps the best time to watch for Badgers during the summer months as in winter they are lot less active when the nights draw in and nature falls into a comparative state of slumber.
An enchanted audience
Patience has its own reward and if you first don’t succeed try, try and try again. My experience nestled in a sea of stinging nettles in the twilight hours throughout the month of June was no exception. But on my fourth visit to the “Wild Wood”; crouched mouse-like in withering anticipation, leaves gently shuddered along the hedge line and the heart began to race. In a scene somewhat reminiscent of a dimly lit stage, just before the curtains rise on opening night not one, but three badger cubs tentatively emerged to take their call. A rush of exhilaration washed through me and if I could bottle that feeling I have little doubt the world would be a better place. This was nature’s theatre at it’s finest as little snouts lifted, sniffed the air and foraged in unison to the delight of an enchanted audience.
Badgers have very poor eyesight but an acute sense of smell and hearing. If you position yourself downwind from the sett at a safe distance, remain still and just try to blend in with your surroundings it’s likely you’ll be richly rewarded.
But a word of caution, the slightest noise or unfamiliar sound will bring any play with such a star-studded cast to an impromptu halt. That momentary ‘click’ of a camera shutter saw heads rise; look right then left; and without further ado the cubs had scurried back to the safety of the sett.
I never saw the cubs again that evening. But it was a lesson learnt upon my return as the days rolled into weeks and the month of June drifted into what now seems a distant yet lasting memory of a summer past.
The benevolence of nature
But in these uncertain times could it be that we might finally be taking a step back and just looking at what’s around us with a heightened sense of curiosity? The healing power of nature is in little doubt and the good news it’s all around us. Perhaps in times past we just weren’t paying attention or chose not to look closely enough. Maybe now we might find that time to finally open our eyes.
As “Badger” from the “Wild Wood” so wisely put it: “People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be."