I've sat with lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs - some of the biggest and most well known mammals you can imagine, but having spent my entire 22 years of life living in the UK I am ashamed to say I have never seen a badger, a truly British mammal, in real life. That is, I hadn't, until last night!
With the atrocities of the badger cull looming over Britain I have recently found myself more and more drawn to this quiet, humble creature. I have asked myself time and time again how it can be that I have never seen for myself this animal that is at the centre of so much anger and frustration across the country? So, when asked if I would like to visit a local badger sett my response was an immediate "Hell yeah!"
My friend and guide, Matt Brierley, and I set out last night as the sun was beginning to wane. He told me how he had discovered this badger sett a couple of years ago and has since been coming to watch the badgers, mostly alone but sometimes with a friend. He doesn't want to share the place too far as he fears the animals may be disturbed, therefore I will not be sharing the secrets of the location. Not too far out from the cull zone we were both highly aware of the risks these badgers may face if exposed to the wrong people.
I was surprised at how easy the place was to find - although I have not seen a badger sett before there was no mistaking the numerous holes dug into the side of a mud bank. Some were clearly old, unused and abandoned, we found one that had been disrespectfully blocked up with a large branch. But many had clear signs of life - freshly dug dirt, drag marks, a nice clear entrance. We chose one that looked the most promising, outside of which we set a camera trap, anticipating some nice close shots of these night-time creatures. And then we took our place behind a large felled tree hoping we were hidden enough to allow us a chance to see into this private world.
As darkness closed in around us the forest began to come to life. In the distance we listened to the shriek of a tawny owl, and some scuffling behind us gave away the location of some other night-time creatures... perhaps a rat, or a fox. We waited patiently and it wasn't long before we heard clear signs of life in front of us... The light of the camera trap flipped on... Something had awoken. I shone my red light across the burrow hoping for my first glimpse, but nothing emerged. Perhaps the badger didn't want to come out yet, perhaps it knew something was afoot... perhaps it wasn't a badger at all. As we sat and calmly waited the light of the camera trap glowed in the darkness time and time again, but we could see nothing.
Suddenly something less meek and shy began to scuffle around to the right of our carefully sought out burrow. Slowly I shone the light across and two bright red beams blinked back at me. As my eyes adjusted I could make out the distinctive black and white head of a badger! Hurrah! I had to maintain my excitement but as I went to point it out to Matt it dove back into the undergrowth. Perhaps my quiet cheer of joy gave me away, but there it was, my first badger!
In the following few minutes I waited with abated breath, but the sounds had died away. But just as I was beginning to give up hope of another sight more scuffling allowed me a view of not one, but three more badgers! Again they didn't stick around for long and headed out into the night for foraging.
It was a brief and quick sighting but an incredible experience. In this time where badgers are under the threat of a ridiculous cull it was an absolute joy to see them wild and free.
Oh... And what of the red light on the camera traps? You can see here what we caught!!