Monday, October 10, 2011

The day I met the badgers...

So, yes, badgers. I do believe that in one of my very first posts I said of my love of badgers that I would write 'much much more very very soon' and although it's actually not very soon, but rather three whole months later, today I am here to do just that. I'm going to tell you about a magical summer evening that I had a few years ago, when I saw my first ever badger (and then 13 more of them all at once!)

I was camping in mid-wales with my man and we were staying at a place called
Gigrin farm, which as you will see if you click on the link, is a Red Kite feeding station and rehabilitation centre. We went there expressly to see these birds...

....and see them we did, every day - hundreds of them! They all fly in every afternoon to get their claws and beaks on the food that has been put out for them every day since the mid 90s in a bid to boost the population.

(I didn't have a very good camera, but this gives you an impression of how full of kites the sky was! This place is a must if you love birds of prey)

Another reason for staying there was the mention of a badger sett on the farm on their website. I was already slightly obsessed with the lovely stripy faced beasts but had never seen a real life badger in the wild, so I was really hoping we would be able to watch badgers there. Upon exploring the farm, however, we realised that the website had not been updated very recently as far as the gentle brocks were concerned - the sett on the farm had long since moved on to new pastures. So no badgers. But not for long. When we asked the lady in the gift shop about local badger-watching opportunities, she gave us the number of a local man named Gareth who she claimed "gets badgers crawling all over him." This seemed a little far-fetched, but we rang him up and arranged to meet him the next night and he promised us guaranteed badger sightings :)

Anyway, we met Gareth the next night about an hour or two before sunset. He was a friendly old man full of anecdotes and facts who took us along to the badgers' home - a sett in the corner of a field beneath a giant oak tree that was some way off the beaten track. It's worth mentioning at this point that badger setts are protected by law, and normally you're not allowed to walk on them. However, Gareth has been visiting the sett for over 25 years and has obtained special permission to spend time here, and to show visitors, with the aim of educating people, so we were able to get up close without breaking any laws.

As we approached, what should happen but... yes! A little badger head popped out! The badger started sniffing the air and when he judged it was safe, out he came, scurrying along searching for food!

Look at his snout sniffing around!

Badgers have really bad eyesight, so they rely on smell to sense for danger. Normally the scent of humans would scare them right off, but as Gareth has been visiting the sett for so long and has gained the trust of several generations of this family of badgers, they are used to his scent, and even when other people are with him, they know it's safe to come out. He feeds them when he brings people along, and during the winter when food is scarce, but not all the time, as they are wild creatures, and he doesn't want them to rely on him or get fat and lazy.
It had been a long hot summer, so their natural food sources (worms, bugs, berries) were running low so we threw handfuls of peanuts for them to eat. Soon, badgers were popping up all around from the different entrance holes to the sett to greet us and join in the feast...

Gareth was able to identify them all - male, female, young and old. He even has names for them... Betsy, Oops-oops, Seni, Young'un, Tiny - each and every brock had a story and a distinctive character...

As you can see from the blurs in the above picture, they move rather quickly! I suppose I had always thought of them as slow creatures, because in cartoons they're always grumpy, angry old characters, and because they're so big you would think they just amble along. But no - they can move! As the sun slowly started to set above the sett, we were surrounded by fourteen badgers, in front us, behind, all around, snuffling all over the ground, completely caught up in their early evening meal (or rather, their breakfast).
Here's a shot of all fourteen badgers. It was quite a sight to behold, and the noise was incredible too, all of them breathing and scurrying and crunch crunch crunching the nuts...

Given how shy these nocturnal beasts usuall are I was amazed at how unafraid of us they seemed to be, and I was even able to take photos with the flash on as it got darker and they didn't flinch. It was amazing to be able to admire they gorgeous grey coats, which you can see when you get close, are flecked with chestnut gold hairs. Their distinctive black and white facial markings are so handsome and it was really strange to look around and think - ahhhh these are real badgers!!!

Their claws are so sharp and their jaws so powerful, that you really wouldn't want to get on their bad side! After they had finished eating, they started to run around the field more, exploring and play-fighting each other. There is a strong sense of hierarchy in the sett, and once the badgers are more than a year old, the males in particular have to fight to remain in the sett. Many of them will have to leave and form new colonies elsewhere- and be prepared to defend their territory. Here you can see two of them (play?)fighting - nipping each other on the neck behind their heads...

Badgers are the biggest wild mammals in Great Britain. Watching them eat and run around and play and fight, it was crazy to think that there are hundreds of these creatures living wild all over the country without ever being seen. Normally they are so shy so you only ever see them on the side of the road when they have been killed by a car :( Seeing them run around so full of life and interact with each other up-close in their natural habitat really was truly an amazing experience...

They are such beautiful creatures - I took so many photos of them, and even a video, but I've just selected some of the best shots as I realise that not everybody is as obsessed with badgers as I am...

In this picture below, you can see some differences in the head sizes of the badgers, which is how you tell males and females apart. I wish I was expert enough to know for sure (I would guess from left to right: young badger, female and male)....

Gareth told us so many interesting stories about the badgers from over the years. He's seen generations grow up and die and observed their behaviour up close almost every evening. He draws them, and welcomes people from all over the place who are interested in finding out more.
He said that if he could he would bring his bed up to the field and sleep there by the sett if only his wife would agree to it! I'd love to live in the countryside when I'm older and find a local badger sett to visit every day (or even get badgers visiting in the garden!)

A film crew has been up there with him, capturing footage for BBC wildlife programmes- and a DVD that he's made which you can get here. It's full of great footage, and gives you as close an experience to visiting the place that you can get without actually going there. I have my own copy having found it online about a year after we went to see them, and I highly recommend it :) Watching it was like reliving the whole experience.

Ok, this post is getting a bit long, so I'll stop (for now! although now that I've started talking about badgers, I might find it hard to stop!) I'll finish by saying that watching badgers up close like this was really one of the most best experiences ever (especially for a nature geek like me). I hope seeing this pictures will spark your interest in these amazing creatures and in wildlife more generally. I've really enjoyed digging up all the pictures and chatting away about badgers!

What's the most amazing wildlife experience you've had? And have you ever seen a badger?


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