Hot Summer Badgers.
Unusually for us, this is our first visit of the year to the badger sett. Something happened here (and at the other badger setts locally); an indeterminate transgression from outside; a violation, perhaps a crime, that can’t be pinned down or proven – but that meant for a while, there were few or no badgers.
But we’ve seen encouraging signs. My ten-year-old daughter and I walk, whispering, across the open pasture, stopping to spot fox poo, and to pick up a buzzard’s pale primary feather. It’s quite a prize and my daughter whirls it between her fingers while the slight breeze that has sprung up, tugs at it, willing it airborne again.
A hare washes its whiskers on the scorched grass, pauses to watch us pass, then begins on its long ears. We approach the sett cautiously, habitually. A thick wall of nettles blocks our normal route in, their tops drooping in the drought. The alternative path puts the breeze inconveniently at our backs (and therefore straight to the badgers) as well as over an unseasonal, crackling mat of caramelised, brittle laurel leaves. A swathe of dog’s mercury in the shade of the woodland floor lies flat and initially I take it as evidence of badger activity – but then, I see all the dog’s mercury has wilted and dropped to the floor. The gasping green understory is as flat as if someone has gone over it with a roller.
We settle with our backs against a sycamore, crackling the dry bark flakes as we try to lean gently upon it. We are in luck. Most of this huge, ancestral badger-city-central is in a big hollow and our scent will be carried high above the animals’ heads. Sheep bleat and a young buzzard squeaks persistently for a last evening meal. Then our eyes alight on a pair of badgers already out, covers off, snoozing at an entrance, their concave, broad skulls laid on top of the other, like precariously piled dishes. My daughter and I do excited, mute, shocked faces at each other. The badgers soon stir, woken by the irritation of flies. They are only 25m away. They start to groom each other enthusiastically, suddenly awake; cubs. They ‘flea’ between each other’s shoulder blades until one tucks its nose in and tries a slow, comical, forward roll. Stuck against a root, its bottom is in the air. Its sibling fleas that. As the badger slowly collapses onto its back, the other continues to nibble in the same place – now at its soft belly – and there is a whicker, a growl and a brief fight before the shrill alarm rattle from a blackbird draws all our attention. They prick their ears towards it as we do, having also learnt the rudiments of a language of another species. When we look back, they have gone.
We breathe out, smile, screw our noses up at each other, grin. A muntjac barks at 11 second intervals and we mouth counting them soundlessly, a slow metronome to a summer’s evening. Then my daughter nudges me. Motions left. Through tall nettles, white stripes. The tired, dusty nettles waggle. A train of badger cubs emerge cautiously and then in reckless bursts. Their white facial stripes are brightened by the chalk; it has the same effect a handler might employ, whitening the socks or tails of cattle or horses for the showring. Four pairs of tiny crescent moons for ears, ride the broad planets of their skulls down the path towards us. They are three strides away.
My daughter whirls the white buzzard feather excitedly in her hands and I move mine to gently stay it. They reach the hard-baked, impacted chalk path our toes are on. Ideally, of course, we wouldn’t be on it; but we are already standing on the rooty toes of the sycamore tree as it is. The first badger comes right out, bear-like claws battle-ready, rattling like sabres against each other and upon the white path, smooth and hard as pavement. Its nose is smudged with chalk, the lozenge of its body follows like an invisibility cloak made of moonlight. It turns to come up towards us but spots or senses us and, without making eye contact, shoots off along the path and disappears down another hole. But the other three follow on, over the white chalk step in front of us; the last is a petite female. A fourth cub emerges behind her and then they seem to sense collectively that their path is partially obstructed, and the train bumps up against each broad backside, turns and flows back up to the first entrance. They play, unconcerned, tumbling, whickering, rolling. One half-climbing the prone tree trunk, the others below in the cave of gnarly roots, trying to climb up. Claws rake on elder and moments later the fresh green-bacon scent of exposed greenwood bursts upon us. Eventually they vanish into the gathering dusk.
I wonder how many we did see? Were the spooked badgers rejoining their sett-mates and siblings below us, through the long, deep network of tunnels? Did we see 7, or 4? We wonder what they are eating, with earthworms being sealed well below the baked earth. There are signs in the barley and wheatfields that they have rolled to flatten the corn and eaten the milky, meagre grains and ears of this thirsty crop.
We leave the badgers to the night, just as the tawny owlets pick up where the buzzard fledgling left off; and return home, jubilant and refreshed.