A Somerset wildlife lover refuses to give up on a wilder countryside
Photo credit - S. Austin
“They are digging up the vicar,” said the church warden. A tiny hint of a smile escapes me before I can stop. After all, the vicar died quiet some time ago and I feel sure he wouldn’t mind.
We stopped for a picnic at a pretty church whilst walking in Dorset and got chatting to the church warden. I complimented her on the lovely church yard with its wild flowers, and somehow the conversation turned to badgers.
I explained that the badgers must have discovered some tasty beetles or worms in the long-undisturbed, rich soil around the vicar’s grave. It had been a long dry summer so far and food was scarce. Once these tasty morsels had been smelt out with those fabulous noses they would be hard to resist, especially if there were hungry cubs to feed. Unfortunately, the warden didn’t listen and seemed convinced that the badgers were just being a nuisance, suggesting that there were too many of them and they kept breeding. After this comment, I briefly considered asking her if she had noticed just how much we humans breed, but I thought it better to keep my mouth shut. She told me she had tried fencing off the grave but the badgers kept coming. Now she had installed good strong boards and seemed very pleased with herself, puffing her chest up with satisfaction. However, she didn’t know what I knew, that badgers never ever give up. As well as being accomplished diggers, their will and determination to survive is what I admire most about them.
This leads me to the many misconceptions some people have of badgers. For example, that there are too many, when in reality about 6 badgers make up a clan, no matter the size of the sett.
Sadly, this species has long suffered persecution. Recently, it’s something I’ve become very aware of. I’ve even scooped out large rocks, which were purposely blocking the entrances of an active sett. Even at one point, playing some sort of sick game with an unknown individual who regularly replaced them, it turns out I was more persistent and eventually they gave up. I’ve picked up broken glass I felt was intentionally placed on an active badger entrance. I have found fireworks that had been placed directly in front of the main entrance of a sett. I can hardly imagine the pure terror these shy animals would have felt from such a cruel act.
The worst wildlife crime I’ve ever come across was during the first COVID pandemic in a remote location close to my home. This location is home to one of most beautiful and ancient Badger sett I’ve ever seen. It was a sett I had been keeping a regular eye on over many years and it was very much active. We were enjoying glorious views whilst on our familiar walk to this location and we were in good spirits, out breathing in the fresh air on the Mendip Hills. As the sett came into view, I noticed a yellow digger parked adjacent to the sett. My heart sank as I knew immediately what I would find. My fears were confirmed as I looked at this once magnificent family home, now reduced to a pile of earth and stones. The historical spoil heaps, carved entrances and paths were gone forever. The sett was almost completely dug out and evidence of digging was only present at the sett. I exploded and shouted up to the sky to curse mankind. I might add, a police investigation followed and I felt satisfied with the outcome.
Of course, as well as persecution the badger cull is evermore present covering almost the whole of England. With 140,000 badgers expected to have been killed to-date and many more deaths to come, it is the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory on English soil.
I am greatly privileged to have watched one very special clan since childhood. They have been a great source of joy to my whole family. They have taught us so much about nature, friendship, kinship, survival and love. But now after reaching the 4th year of culling here in my part of Somerset when I look into this historical sett it’s now barren and filled with leaves. I feel sure my precious clan have seen the guns. No signs of my life long, stripy friends and other setts in the area are the same. Badger pathways, worn by generations busy bringing back bedding or returning from a night foraging, are now rapidly fading. A land void of life.
My much loved walks past this sett will never be the same, on a very cold day I would sometimes see the misty breath of the sleeping clan below (they actually sleep quite close to the surface). On one occasion, while standing quietly down wind, to my children’s greatest delight, we heard the clicks and squeaks of the precious family beneath our feet. I now look at this ancestral home and the diminished signs of life and I feel a pang of grief so deep it robs me of breath.
But just like our Badgers, I refuse to give up no matter how bleak it seems. I find myself more than ever looking for badger signs such as snuffle holes, fresh scratch marks on favourite trees, latrines (yes, badgers, not the Romans were the first to invent these). These signs are now a rare spot but nature never fails to surprise.
One early autumn morning, I was walking the footpath near my childhood sett with sadness in my heart when I came across a nibbled corn on the cob, a favourite badger snack! I thought of all that’s been lost, and yet I pictured in my mind’s eye an individual badger from my clan who’d survived against the odds, or maybe a lone wanderer from afar having lost their own family to the cull looking for new territory. My heart leapt with joy at the sight of this little husk and I dared to hope…