Night falls across Cornwall. As the moon shines over the hedgerows, wooded valleys and cliff-top scrubs, one of our most familiar, yet oft unseen wild neighbours emerge from their deep homes underground, snuffling for worms till day-break.
Badgers are busy indeed at this time of year, and the West Country is their UK strong-hold. A landscape rich in pastoral grazing systems and the rich, pesticide-free soil this provides is brimming with earthworms. These make up a huge part of the badger’s diet, and while they certainly aren’t fussy in regards to what they eat, the humble earthworm has allowed badgers to be a relatively easy mammal to find in the Cornish countryside – if you know where and how to look.
Finding signs of badger activity in the daytime is a rewarding enough feeling. There’s the five-toed, kidney shaped paw print, a latrine dug into the middle of a woodland trail, or discovering a used badger sett for yourself, complete with discarded piles of bedding in the form of faded grass, bracken or bluebells lying strewn across the soil heaps as if they were expecting them to be collected by bin-men.
June is a time of plenty for badgers – the cubs, which would have been born underground in late winter, will have been above ground for at least a couple of months or so by now. Confident and comfortable in the outside world, they’re as lively as you’d expect. With a bit of fieldcraft, it’s a fantastic sight that can be seen for yourself, providing a window onto a hidden world.
If you’ve found or know of an active badger sett, check the area out first – visit the sett early in the day so as to reduce the risk of leaving your scent behind, and work out where you’re going to sit come the evening that will allow you to see the badgers while remaining hidden. My rule of thumb is to try and stay at least 20 feet from the nearest entrance, and from here find a solid structure – generally a tree – you can lean against which will cover your whole back. Badgers have pretty awful eyesight, so as long as they can’t see a human-shaped silhouette, they’re unlikely to register you visually.
The same disabilities do not go for their senses of sound and scent however, which are excellent. So before you head off to visit the sett that night, make sure you’re wearing plenty of warm clothing that doesn’t rustle (cottons are best – and cover up to reduce midge bites!), that you’ll be both watching and approaching the sett from downwind, and during the latter, walk as quietly as you can. Make sure someone knows where you’re going beforehand, and you have permission from the landowner if necessary. If all is in your favour, you should hopefully be in for an unforgettable evening among badger company.
The time badgers emerge does vary, often depending on how quiet the sett’s location is. Try to be in your vantage spot by at least an hour before sunset at the absolute latest, as badgers will tend to appear as dusk sets in. The wait can be just as rewarding however. As the wood around you ‘adjusts’ to your presence, it almost seems to forget you completely. Other animals may become apparent. Bats flit from their roosts, relievingly warding off the mosquitoes. Tawny owlshoot vehemently against each other from their unseen perches, deer quietly saunter past, and an odd frog-like call followed by a high-pitched note in the sky above signals the roding display of the male woodcock.
Then, with luck, a black and white face emerges from the sett. Sometimes you’ll witness it appear, sniff the air, retreat and then repeat it all again. Other times the sett will seem quiet, you’ll look away, and suddenly a badger is on one of the spoil heaps as if it had magically teleported out of nowhere. Whatever the case, the adult badgers will generally sit by the sett for some time, surveying their surroundings like wizened gardeners, or having a long scratch and stretch after a good day’s sleep. While this often done socially, they’ll soon head off on their own to search for food. One of the most intriguing questions for scientists is that for a social animal, they’re not very social in their habits. A great body of literature on this aspect of their behaviour is still being gathered today.
The cubs on the other hand rarely seem to venture far from one another, and tumble about the sett area like a motley group of mop-heads gone feral, yikkering and yakking through the increasing darkness. This can also be the ultimate test of your badger watching skills. So oblivious to your presence, it’s not uncommon to have cubs come to within touching distance (not that I’d ever endorse this!) You’ve become part of the woodland furniture, and being crashed into by tumbling cubs is a real possibility!
For a chance to step into another world, I highly recommend at least one of your 30 days wild be spent watching badgers. You might just find a new life-long hobby…