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An Unforgettable Evening

Geoff Marsh remembers his first encounter with a family of badger cubs

Badgers

The last glimmer of daylight was draining from the western sky. My eyes had adjusted to the coming night but were still sensitive to those last dregs of the passing day. I was trying to find a comfortable spot to sit but was already fidgeting – not because of where I had chosen to rest but because of the midges that were making their presence felt in the pleasantly soft air of the evening. The warm weather of the day had fermented the decaying vegetation in the wood and, mixed with fresh growth of the many plants that were pushing up through the old leaf-litter, had created the subtle aroma that was hanging in the air and that to me is so characteristic of the times I have spent badger watching in the spring.

Badgers

The excitement of seeing a badger emerge from its sett, when that first black and white head appears, never diminishes. But I hoped that this particular evening in a wood in West Morden was going to be even more exciting. The resident pair of tawny owls were calling to each other, one calling ‘twit twit’ whilst its mate replied with a ‘twoo’. Somewhere in a neighbouring field I could hear a cock pheasant making quite a noise as it settled itself for the night. Wood mice were scuttling about in the undergrowth, hunting for insects and other morsels of food. Amazingly, the wood was full of sounds made by an array of wildlife that becomes active only once darkness falls. But one sound in particular that I was straining to hear was the unmistaken scuffles of moving badgers.

Badgers

Surely this was going to be the evening that I would see the badger cubs. Everything seemed to be just right, but then again I had been saying that for the last week without any sign of them. They can be a little shy when they first come above ground but, like all young animals, their confidence soon grows as they find their feet. Within days of leaving the sett they start to play, and with the play come lots of boisterous whickers and snorts as they dash about.

Badgers

The peak time for badger cubs to be born is February. At birth they weigh only 3½ ounces and are barely 5 inches long. They grow quickly on the rich milk of their mother, reaching two pounds by three months. As soon as they are mobile, they investigate and become familiar with the interior of the sett where they are born. Their mother is very protective and, like any good mother, has to keep them in check when they get a little too adventurous! By early April, however, she is no longer able to hold them back and it is at this time that they take their first steps outside the sett into the big wide world. It was now the second week of April, yet I was still to see any cubs – in the wrong place at the wrong time, I kept telling myself!

Badgers

My eyes were fully adjusted to the night and I could quite easily distinguish the different shapes around me, so I was sure that any movement would not be missed. Then in a split second a badger was moving from one sett entrance to another; it seemed to materialise from nowhere. Within moments there were other badgers moving about in front of me. All of them seemed to be on a mission as they moved to one particular part of the sett. They are highly sociable animals when in or near their setts and the badgers that I was watching were no exception as they gathered together at one entrance to groom and scent-mark each other.

Badgers

I strained my eyes to make out whether there were any cubs amongst the group. I thought perhaps that all the activity was just a little too boisterous for the cubs to be involved – would Mum allow them such freedom? Then three small bundles of fur came bouncing past me. They were having a great game of chase of their own, obviously enjoying their new playground. They seemed oblivious to the rest of the family at the far end of the sett. It was good to see three together. There were probably more cubs; there can be as many as five in one family but not all of them survive the first few weeks, and some of the cubs always dominate all activities, even play.

I was spellbound as the cubs chased about in front of me, sometimes coming to within five feet of where I sat. Any feelings of cramp that were creeping into my legs minutes earlier had been forgotten and I just smiled at the cubs’ endless energy and their complete disregard for caution. What a rewarding evening! All the hours spent waiting to see the badger cubs was well worth the cramps and the midges, and I knew I would soon be back to be entertained by the cubs’ antics as they gained confidence in their new outside playground.

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