Fox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

FeaturedFox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

In the summer of 1983 we were holed up in a cottage in the rolling Shropshire hills just outside Clun. Walking along a woodland track one evening, we encountered a badger, a meeting so rare and magical that the memory of it – the subject of an earlier post on this blog – has remained to this day. Last weekend, back in the same neck of the woods, we had another remarkable encounter – this time with a fox.

Meeting a fox is not that unusual, whether in town or country. But the circumstances of this encounter were strange. We were driving  out of Clun along the A488 when we noticed the fox ambling along the grassy margin at the side of the busy road. We slowed, then stopped, and the fox, possibly a young female, paused too, inquisitive about us and showing no fear of the car. She looked in superb condition, a very fine animal with black-tipped ears and elegant charcoal shading to her white-tipped brush.

For several minutes we watched entranced while she, too, stared back at us.

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves

It was only when our dog stood up in the back seat and peered at her through the window that the vixen turned tail and disappeared through the hedge.

It isn’t unusual to see a fox during daylight hours. They often hunt for food in the daytime, especially when they’re feeding a litter of hungry cubs – another factor making it likely that our fox was a female.

There was a further twist to this story. Two hours later we returned along the A488 and, at the same spot, saw the fox again – this time on the opposite side of the road. Strange coincidence!

Seeing a wild animal so closely and long enough to study her every detail made for a priceless moment; but, on a busy A road, also provoked fears for her safety – as envisioned in Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘The Fox’:

Standing its ground on the hill, as if it could hide
in its own stars, low down in the west of the sky.
I could hit it from here with a stone, put the torch
in the far back of its eyes. It’s that close.

The next night, the dustbin sacked, the bin-bag
quartered for dog meat, biscuit and bone.

The night after that, six magpies lifting
from fox fur, smeared up ahead on the road.

Alice Oswald expresses the same sense of the animal’s vulnerablity in her poem, ‘Fox’, giving voice to her midnight food-seeking vixen: ‘my life/is laid beneath my children/like gold leaf.’

I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house

just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
hungrily asking
in the heart’s thick accent

in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name

as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf


See also

Badgerlands: perturbation in the nation

Badgerlands: perturbation in the nation

CF Tunnicliffe, Badgers

CF Tunnicliffe, Badgers

The badger is one of our best-loved animals – and yet, despite the fact there are more badgers per square mile in Britain than any other country, few of us have seen one (our one, magical encounter is described here).  I have just finished reading Badgerlands in which Patrick Barkham sets out to trace the strange history of our relationship with badgers and find out why it is so vexed: why some people devote their lives to feeding or rescuing badgers while others risk jail by torturing and killing them for their own pleasure.

Patrick Barkham is a Guardian journalist and Badgerlands has the feel of a series of disparate reports stitched together to form a book. That’s not to belittle it, but to draw attention to its scope. For Barkham examines every aspect of the British badger, from the place the animal occupies in our imaginations to the culture clash between countryside and city represented by the ferocious debate over the badger’s contribution to TB in cattle and whether it merits the cull of badgers that has now begun in Gloucestershire and Somerset. In addition to an informative, even-handed survey of those issues (some might say: a little too even-handed), Barkham also enters the badger’s nocturnal world, spending initially fruitless evenings trying to catch his first glimpse of a badger.  Eventually, his persistence pays dividends and we get delightful accounts of his observations of badger families foraging around their setts.

Every aspect of the badger is explored by Barkham.  He spends time on either side of the barricades in the badger wars dividing town and country – talking to dairy farmers and government officials in favour of the cull, out in the dead of night with activists attempting to disrupt it, exploring the shady underworld of badger-baiting populated by tough working-class men with tough working dogs. He visits people who care for wounded badgers, and people who watch and feed them. He talks to Brian May, the Queen guitarist, who now devotes much of his time to issues of animal welfare, especially the question of the badger cull. In one chapter (nauseating for this vegetarian) he finds a man who lives on road-kill badger and together they butcher a large boar and eat a plateful of stir-fry badger ham.

Detail of Sodoma’s ‘Life of St Benedict’ (1505), showing an unusual example of badgers as pets

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Sodoma), ‘Life of St Benedict’ (detail), 1505: a rare depiction of badgers as pets

Barkham begins with the badger’s considerable impact on the British landscape. He writes:

Our country has not only been named after badgers; it has been shaped by them. spectacular earthworks of their setts higher density of badgers here than anywhere else in the world.

The places named after badgers include anywhere with a variant of brock, pate, gray, bawson, billy in the place-name: ‘all the old badgery place names’, such as Brocklebank, Broxbourne, Grayswood, and Pately Bridge.

Despite their presence all around us, as Barkham makes clear, we still don’t actually know that much about them: not even how many of them there are. It might be 200,000, but then again it could be 600,000, of which a staggering 50,000 end up as road-kill every year. And who knew that a badger’s living quarters were so sumptuous?

When the government dispatched seven men to measure a badger sett in the Seventies, they took eight days to get to the bottom of it, unearthing a ‘typical’ sett featuring 16 entrances, 57 chambers and a maze of tunnels nearly a third of a kilometre in length. The badgers had excavated 25 tonnes of soil to create it.

Barkham describes the badger’s cleanliness (those setts are maintained in immaculate condition), their catholic tastes in food (they are omnivores who will scoff anything they are offered – as he observes when visiting those who feed badgers on their lawn or patio nightly.  They’ll happily munch grapes as much as meat, sandwiches or sausages. He informs us, too, about the latest scientific observations of their social behaviour which have overturned some long-established myths. Because they tend to forage alone, they have been regarded as ‘primitive’ animals with basic social instincts. Yet the truth is that they live harmoniously in complex groups, groom each other, care for each other (Barkham tells of one badger, born blind, which was shepherded by family members), and they bury their dead.  He concludes that their successful, largely harmonious social structures present a striking alternative to our world – and it baffles us.

Sketch of five badger cubs at play by Eileen Soper

Sketch of five badger cubs at play by Eileen Soper

One night, as part of his exploration of whether vaccination offers an alternative to a cull, Barkham joins a vaccination project. He sees how the badgers trapped for vaccination all react differently. Some were naturally very stressed, attempting to dig their way out of the cage in which they were trapped; but others were calm, even laid back. When found, one was so deeply asleep it only woke up when being vaccinated. Another had managed to pull an old plastic feed sack into its cage as a bed, while a third badger had pulled grass into its cage, made a nest and gone to sleep.  Having been vaccinated, it didn’t want to leave its cage.

In his exploration of the cultural landscape of Badgerland, Barkham traces the history of badger-baiting through the centuries. At one time, pursuit of the badger was an aristocratic pastime:

To do battle with a badger, a 16th century treatise advised, a man must find the following: a dozen strong men to dig; a dozen good dogs to work underground and, for each, a collar with a bell attached; broad and narrow picks; a large spade; wood and iron shovels; a stout pair of long-handled tongs; sacks to stow the captured animals; a water bowl for the dogs; half a dozen rugs to lie on and listen, ear to the ground, for barking; Indian game fowls, hams and beef tongue to eat; copious flagons of alcoholic refreshment; and a little pavilion to light a fire for warmth in winter. ‘Further, to do the thing properly,’ wrote our badger hunter, ‘the Seigneur must have his little carriage in which he will ride, with a young girl of sixteen to seventeen years of age, who will stroke his head while he is on the road’.

But, badger-baiting was mostly a hidden, peasant activity.  Barkham quotes Richard Jeffries, writing in 1879 of the Wiltshire village of his childhood as ‘a republic without even the semblance of a Government’, venerating the ideals of liberty, equality and swearing. ‘Betting, card-playing, ferret-breeding and dog-fancying, poaching and politics, are the occupations of the populace.  A little illicit badger-baiting is varied by a little vicar-baiting.’  Obviously, Barkham can’t fail to note that the most vivid account of baiting occurs in John Clare’s poem, ‘Badger‘, written in the 1830s, which ends thus:

He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans, and dies.

Barkham also cites Mary Wollstonecraft who, writing in 1792, claimed that blood sports such as badger baiting were a natural result of social oppression, the oppressed taking their frustrations out on the only outlet they had available:

It may be unspeakably cruel, it may be an expression of our basest instincts – man as bully and coward and thrill-seeker – but it is an expression of autonomy and freedom, and of one class’s contempt for the laws made by another.

CF Tunnicliffe, A Badger with Three Dachsunds

CF Tunnicliffe, A Badger with Three Dachsunds

In 1835 the Cruelty to Wild Animals Act made it illegal to bait badgers with dogs, though badger digging continued. In 1833, four years before she became queen, Victoria wrote in her diary: ‘I dressed dear, sweet, little Dash for the second time after dinner in a scarlet jacket and trousers’, Dash being her beloved dachsund, the short-legged dog bred by German and Austrian aristocrats to go underground in pursuit of the badger.

Barkham pursues the history of badger-digging and nocturnal badger hunting into the 20th century.  He finds that badger-digging, unlike baiting, ‘was sufficiently respectable to be enjoyed by members of the ruling classes for much of the twentieth century.  It was a Sunday activity, carried out after church’. The tradition persisted, the result of widespread ignorance of the animal (regarded as foe, vermin,sheep-killer) and of its continued persecution by men from the lower classes. Today it remains a white working-class male pastime (few, if any, females are present at a badger dig).

But in the first half of the 20th century, the badger’s relationship with the human population of Britain was ‘turned on its head’; Barkham writes:

The badger was transformed from an object of fear, superstition and rural torture into a cuddly hero for children and a revered symbol of conservation for adults.

Badger, Toad, Rat and Mole from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Illustrations by E. H. Shepard.

Badger, Toad, Ratty and Mole from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Illustration by EH Shepard

One man, and one badger, largely responsible: far more people have encountered Mr Badger in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and EH Shepard’s illustrations than have ever seen a badger living in the wild:

In 1908, Mole caught sight of Badger peering from a hedge.  Badger trotted forward, grunted, ‘H’m! Company’, and disappeared again. ‘Simply hates Society!’ explained the Water Rat.

Barkham devotes a whole chapter of Badgerlands to an exploration of the background to the book. He discusses the passage – ‘the very heart of Grahame’s Arcadian dream’ – in which we are introduced to Badger’s kitchen, ‘a child’s fantasy of warmth and safety’.Toad is terrorising the neighbourhood with his new obsession for motor vehicles, and Badger decides he must be ‘taken in hand’. Without Badger, Grahame seems to suggest, his bucolic idyll of the English countryside would be lost for ever.

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught. A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodations for the sociably disposed. In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

Badger cubs by Eileen Soper

 Badger cubs by Eileen Soper

In another chapter Barkham tells of the women – including his maternal grandmother – who have been compelled by badgers to write about them, draw and paint them, observe them or protect them.  One such was Eileen Soper, dedicated badger-watcher who illustrated Enid Blyton’s adventure stories – and whose drawings of badgers illustrate this post.

When Badgers Wake

The cover of Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’

When Eileen Soper died in March 1990, executors found a profusion of watercolours and a large number of her drawings at her home in Hertfordshire. She had been hailed as a child prodigy when she had two etchings hung by the Royal Academy at the age of fifteen. Later she had a successful  career as a book-illustrator, enjoying a long partnership with Enid Blyton. Yet it was as an observer and painter of wildlife that she really came into her own. Hundreds of hours of patient study went into her book When Badgers Wake, much of her work done in the half-wild garden which surrounded her home near Welwyn.

Soper When Badgers Wake

A double page spread from Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’

In the same chapter Barkham writes of his maternal grandmother, Jane Ratcliffe, and wonders what she would have made of his initially fumbled and futile attempts to watch badgers.  She wrote a book, Through the Badger Gate, that Barkham describes as ‘a love letter to Bodger, her first badger’ (you can read Barkham’s Guardian obituary of his grandmother here). Ratcliffe was a vocal supporter of badgers, nursing them back to health and releasing them into the wild.  She and her husband volunteered for the local Wildlife Trust on the Wirral and recorded badgers at 27 setts in Cheshire, 15 of which were destroyed between 1969 and 1971 by badger diggers who travelled from the Potteries with their terriers.  By 1973 only one of the setts was still occupied.

In 1970, Jane took in her first badger, an orphaned and desperately-ill cub she called Bodger. The previous day she had been in London at the Women’s Institute AGM where she had spoken in support of a resolution she had submitted to her local WI branch calling for legislation to prohibit any killing of badgers other than under licence.  It was supported overwhelmingly, and after a successful lobbying campaign, resulted in the Badgers Act of 1973 being passed, for the first time in British history giving a land mammal specific protection from persecution by making it an offence to ‘cruelly ill-treat’ any badger.

But even as the legislation reached the statute book, a new threat to Britain’s badgers had emerged: bovine TB. Badgers were now in direct conflict with the interests of farmers and consumers. Barkham points up the ironies: that it happened to be cows that first passed the disease to badgers, and that the disease materialised in badgers just months before they finally gained full legal protection.

Soper When Badgers Wake The Lean Days

An illustration from Eileen Soper’s ‘When Badgers Wake’: ‘The Lean Days’

This leads Barkham into an even-handed examination of the bovine TB question.  He records the anxieties and despair of people on both sides of the culling debate, and picks apart the confused mess of government policy. Those in favour of culling say that badgers spread contagion, that it’s impossible to fence them out of farms, and that they’ve been legislatively overprotected for years. Those against say culling only promotes the wider distribution of TB and that it’s not just badgers that are responsible for the disease. He notes the confusion over the actual numbers of badgers in the cull areas –  a matter that is crucial because to be successful a cull must achieve the target of killing 70% of the badger population.  It was that confusion over the actual size of the badger population in Gloucestershire and Somerset that led to the initial postponement of the cull.

Barkham discusses the evidence that culling can actually make things worse by pushing surviving badgers out to surrounding areas – a process labelled ‘perturbation’ – and compares the costs of culling with the costs of vaccination (now being implemented by some landowners, including the National Trust). The cost of the proposed cull seems likely to outstrip the putative benefits, at the same time as driving badgers from their current territories and spreading the incidence of bovine TB.

The 2013 cull singularly failed the test of being able to kill sufficient badgers to meet criteria set by the government. The cull failed to kill at least 70% of the local badgers within a six-week period, and even though the culling period was extended, the total number of badgers slaughtered rose only marginally.  The government was also forced to admit that only 24 % of the badgers killed were by controlled shooting, which was precisely the method that the pilots were supposed to be testing. The rest were cage trapped, which is much more expensive.

The 2013 culls were branded an ‘epic failure’ by Professor David Macdonald – the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, the organisation that had authorised them. He said: ‘It is hard to see how continuing this approach could be justified’.  Yet this year, the government announced a repeat. Barkham points out how misleading is the term ‘cull’, since the vast majority of badgers killed will be healthy and free of the disease. (On the subject of this Orwellian use of language – and how it spreads to the way governments talk about human beings, do read today’s Guardian piece, ‘‘Cleansing the stock’ and other ways governments talk about human beings‘, by George Monbiot, in which he argues that those in power don’t speak of ‘people’ or ‘killing’, but employ dehumanising euphemisms that help them pursue policies that we might otherwise consider unpalatable.)

As Barkham notes, there are less than 300,000 badgers in Britain. Although protected by laws to prevent badger baiting, licences can be granted by the Government for ‘disease control’ and ‘research’ reasons. It is believed that only between 11-15% of the national population of badgers has bovine TB.  Some argue that bovine TB in badgers has been accelerated by the increased movement of cattle around the country by the farming industry. Barkham represents both sides of the argument, but signs off with the case presented by a group of vets, as reported in the Veterinary Times. Their view is that the spread of bovine TB is more a symptom of unhealthy, overbred cattle herds with low immunity than it is of any wild animal acting as a carrier. The authors argue that bovine TB has become more prevalent in the UK because of increasingly intensive cattle breeding and farming. In particular, artificial insemination (AI), widely used in the dairy industry since the 1950s, has selectively bred ‘mutant cows’ that produce large quantities of milk but have little resistance to diseases such as bovine TB and BSE. ‘Dairy cows stopped co-evolving with TB more than 50 years ago, due to AI’, they say. They continue:

TB is often a disease of poverty, in humans as well as animals, and many of our dairy cattle live in poverty equivalent to that of a workhouse during the industrial revolution.  Most importantly, there is poverty in the lack of any normal relationships around breeding and calf rearing. The only long-term solution is a paradigm shift in favour of cattle welfare, small farmers and wildlife – not mega-dairies and money.  We need to start looking, right now, at the economic and genetic background to the dairy industry, and fix it, before it’s too late.  We support the long-term restructuring and de-intensification of the dairy industry to better support the health and welfare of cattle, as well as small farmers and consumers.

At the end of his journey through Britain’s Badgerlands, Patrick Barkham visits Judy Salisbury, a woman in her eighties, who has been feeding badgers on the patio of her lonely house on the edge of the Camel estuary for years.  On her patio, the badgers’ absorption, their utter contentment in the fine dining they found nightly in Judy Salisbury’s garden reminds him of a scientist’s comment he had recorded earlier that foraging badgers were like shoppers in a supermarket: different family groups foraging and eating together, tolerantly stepping around ‘shoppers’ from other social groups.  He has an awful thought:

My admiration for this feeding fraternity was suddenly halted by a thought so vivid it was as if I had seen it.  At some point soon, this exact scene would be played out at apparently generous and benign badger supermarkets built conveniently close to setts in Gloucestershire and Somerset.  Having taken all the usual precautions, a dozen badgers would be browsing the aisles together and then a barrage of shots would ring out.  Most, hopefully all, would perceive a flash of light, a punch in the guts like nothing they had ever experienced, before darkness descended for ever.  A few unlucky animals would stagger off, nursing horrendous injuries, if they were not wiped out by the second, or third, volley of shots.

During the months he spent exploring Badgerlands, Barkham came to understand how we view the badger as quintessentially British because of its long presence on our lands – and yet we do not take it for granted because most of us rarely see it.  The badger manages to be both native and exotic.  No matter how hard farmers try to persuade us, Meles meles will never be viewed as a pest like the rabbit, magpie or rat. The badger’s visual qualities should not be underestimated either.  No jury, he writes, would ever find such an appealing criminal guilty.

See also

The badger is the true king of this land

The badger is the true king of this land

Badger by Eileen Soper

Badger by Eileen Soper

Reposted from 21 July 2011

One of the most magical experiences of my life was an encounter with a badger.  So it pains me that the government has finally made the decision to go ahead with a badger cull.  The Guardian has a concise, reasoned editorial on the plan here: ‘At the end of the exercise, England’s dairy farmers will still be no better off, and the wild landscape will be a great deal poorer. Crazy seems too mild an epithet’.

Brian May’s e-petition can be signed here.  The 38 Degrees petition against the cull can be signed here.  There’s been a big debate among 38 Degrees members about these culls. Some believe killing badgers would be wrong under any circumstances. Some believe that if the science really proved that shooting badgers could make a real dent in the cow TB problem, it would be a tragic necessity. But 87% agree on this: the government’s current plans to shoot England’s badgers simply don’t stack up. The government’s own scientific advisers warn that it won’t solve the problem of TB in cattle, and could even make it worse.

Government scientists say that if a cull isn’t carried out ‘in a co-ordinated, sustained and simultaneous manner according to the minimum criteria, then this could result in a smaller benefit or even a detrimental effect’.

The arguments surrounding the cull are weighed in this piece by Damien Carrington in The Guardian.  It doesn’t look good for the badger,  the ‘most ancient Briton of English beasts’ as Edward Thomas observed in ‘The Combe‘.  Carrington writes that,

The proposals consulted upon by the government, amount to a DIY cull by landowners: they will self-organise into groups and then shoot free-running badgers. At the time, the proposals were described as “scientifically among the worst options they could have chosen” by the leading UK’s leading badger ecologist, who worked on the biggest trial ever undertaken.

He concludes that,

The most obvious alternative is already being implemented by the National Trust: trapping and vaccinating the badgers against TB. But, it’s expensive and the government has cancelled five projects to test vaccination, leaving just one. In the medium-term, an oral vaccine, which can be given far more easily and cheaply in food, seems ideal. But will not be ready for use until 2015.

Green MP Caroline Lucas, responded to the government announcement with this statement:

The decision by Defra to give the go-ahead for a barbaric slaughter of badgers in our countryside shows a shocking disregard for animal welfare – and flies in the face of scientific evidence on the spread of bovine TB.  The belief that badger culling represents an effective solution has already been disproven.  After a nine year randomised cull trial which cost the UK taxpayer £50m and destroyed 10,000 badgers, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB concluded that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’.  Even the Government adviser responsible for a 10-year experimental cull in the 1990s, Lord Krebs, has now rejected the method.  Perhaps it is this lack of evidence to support the policy that has made Defra so reluctant to publish the results of its consultation.

Eighty per cent of bovine TB transmission is thought to be caused by cattle-to-cattle infection.  Given that it is a respiratory disease, this high rate can be attributed to the trend towards intensive dairy farming, in which cattle are kept in crowded conditions. Rather than cruel and ineffective mass culling, restrictions on cattle movement and contact between badgers and cattle should be given high priority, in addition to greater efforts to introduce a vaccination programme.

Queen guitarist Brian May has campaigned against the cull for many years.  In a  recent Guardian feature he stated:

I don’t really love badgers because they are furry and good-looking. It’s not about that. They are appealing, there’s no doubt, they are like little bears, especially when they are young. To me they are fascinating and rather mysterious because they have been in the British Isles longer than humans and they have their own social ways, not all of which is understood by us.

I can’t help but have a sort of awe for all wild creatures who have survived even the awfulness of what we have done to the world. We are the vandals in this world, there’s no doubt about it.”

Despite being the first wild animal to be given legal protection in Britain, in 1973, the illegal “sport” of badger baiting and digging still goes on, and this year killing badgers is set to be sanctioned by the government – which wants to authorise farmers to trap and shoot them to reduce bovine TB. May is convinced this is the Conservatives’ political sop to the countryside lobby because, locked in coalition, they lack the numbers to repeal Labour’s hunting ban. “It’s a panacea that is being offered to farmers, look we are doing something, we are on your side, we’re going out and killing things,” he says.

Bovine TB led to the slaughter of 24,899 cattle in England last year, costing £63m. Farmers insist the disease is a genuine crisis, and argue it has increased with a burgeoning badger population and that disease hotspots correspond to high badger populations, particularly in the West Country. May insists that it is still unproven that badgers pass TB to cattle (it is proven that cattle transmit it to badgers) and unproven that a cull would help.  He quotes the conclusion of a 10-year culling trial in which 11,000 badgers were killed: culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the control of TB.

Badger and Owl by Carrie Akroyd

In ‘Coming Down Through Somerset’, the unsentimental Ted Hughes wrote movingly of an encounter with a dead badger:

I flash-glimpsed in the headlights — the high moment
Of driving through England — a killed badger
Sprawled with helpless legs. Yet again
Manoeuvred lane-ends, retracked, waited
Out of decency for headlights to die,
Lifted by one warm hindleg in the world-night
A slain badger. August dust-heat. Beautiful,
Beautiful, warm, secret beast. Bedded him
Passenger, bleeding from the nose. Brought him close
Into my life. Now he lies on the beam
Torn from a great building. Beam waiting two years
To be built into new building. Summer coat
Not worth skinning off him. His skeleton — for the future.
Fangs, handsome concealed. Flies, drumming,
Bejewel his transit. Heatwave ushers him hourly
Towards his underworlds. A grim day of flies
And sunbathing. Get rid of that badger.
A night of shrunk rivers, glowing pastures,
Sea-trout shouldering up through trickles. Then the sun again
Waking like a torn-out eye. How strangely
He stays on into the dawn — how quiet
The dark bear-claws, the long frost-tipped guard hairs!
Get rid of that badger today.
And already the flies.
More passionate, bringing their friends. I don’t want
To bury and waste him. Or skin him (it is too late).
Or hack off his head and boil it
To liberate his masterpiece skull. I want him
To stay as he is. Sooty gloss-throated,
With his perfect face. Paws so tired,
Power-body regulated. I want him
To stop time. His strength staying, bulky,
Blocking time. His rankness, his bristling wildness,
His thrillingly painted face.
A badger on my moment of life.
Not years ago, like the others, but now.
I stand
Watching his stillness, like an iron nail
Driven, flush to the head,
Into a yew post. Something has to stay.

Badger - RJ Lloyd

Badger by RJ Lloyd

In 1984, in his ‘fable for the young’,What is the Truth, Ted Hughes has the poacher speak these lines:

Main thing about badgers is hating daylight.
Funny kind of chap snores all day
In his black hole-sort of root
A ball of roots a potato or a bulb maybe
A whiskery bulb he loves bulbs he’ll do a lot to get a good bulb

Worms beetles things full of night
Keeping himself filled up with night
A big beetle wobbling along nose down in the mould
Heavy weight of night in him
Heavy pudding of night solid in him and incredibly heavy
Soaking out through his beetle-black legs
Leaving the hair-tips on his bristly back drained empty
And white and his face drained stark-white
A ghost mask really a fright mask
I know night-shift miners
Are very pale but he’s whitewashed

Like a sprout’s white I suppose underground
He sprouts his nose slowly
Surprising to see it sticking out of the ground
To sniff if the sun’s gone-soon he comes rolling out
A fat bulb with a sniffing sprout, a grey mushroom
Just bulging out of the ground and sitting there on top of it
Scratching his fleas sniffing for stars

His sniffing around is a bit like a maggot
Then he’s of following his sniff
With his burglar’s mask on and his crowbar
Under his moonlight cloak
And all night he’s breaking and entering
Deadlogs wasps’ nests hedgehogs, old wild man of the woods in his woad
Crashing about, humming to himself

Amazing physique he has Eskimo wrestler
Really like a Troll bristly gristly
Armpits like an orangoutang when you examine him
And a ridge on his skull like a gorilla
Packed in muscle a crash-helmet of muscle
His head is actually one terrific muscle
With a shocking chomp and sleepy little eyes
To make it seem harmless. But he’s harmless enough
Even if he acts guilty. And he makes you smile
When you see his back-end bobbing along in the dawn-dew
With the sack of himself bouncing on his gallop
Just like a sack of loot. My Dad said
Kill a badger kill your granny. Kill a badger never see
The moon in your sleep. And so it is.
They disappear under their hill but they work a lot inside people.

Bovine TB causes tens of millions of pounds of damage annually, with affected farmers forced to discard milk, meat and other products from infected beasts, and sometimes to abandon livestock farming altogether (though many critics of the cull argue that bovine TB has spread as a consequence of intensive farming methods). In What is the Truth, Ted Hughes put these words into the mouth of the farmer:

The Badger in the spinney is the true king of this land.
All creatures are his tenants, though not all understand.

Didicoi red and roe-deer, gypsy foxes, romany otters-
They squabble about their boundaries, but all of them are squatters.

Even the grandest farm-house, what is it but a camp
In the land where the singing Badger walks the woods with his hooded lamp?

A farmer’s but a blowing seed with a flower of crops and herds.
His tractors and his combines are as airy as his words.

But the Badger’s fort was dug when the whole land was one oak.
His face is his ancient coat of arms, and he wears the same grey cloak

As if time had not passed at all, as if there were no such thing,
As if there were only the one night-kingdom and its Badger King.

Badger Studies by Will Taylor

See also

Encounter with a badger: most ancient of English beasts

Encounter with a badger: most ancient of English beasts

We heard the animal before we saw it: crashing through the undergrowth at the edge of a dirt road in Shropshire in the deepening glow of a late summer’s evening nearly thirty years ago.  Bulldozing its way out of the copse, distinctive long black and white striped snout to the fore, appeared the bulk of a full-grown badger, less than fifteen feet from where we stood.

Badgers come out in the evening when worms – their staple food – rise to the surface.  This one was up early for some reason, lumbering across the path in front of us, before disappearing into the foliage on the other side.  We stood, entranced, for a moment, as the sound of the beast crashing through the undergrowth faded from our ears.  Since badgers are shy creatures and largely nocturnal, most people never see a badger unless on TV. We were very privileged, and that moment remains vivid, a precious memory of a golden summer.

It was August 1983; the previous summer we had gone our separate ways, the result of an action taken in haste and error, and a failure of understanding on my part.  But a year later our paths had entwined once more, and we had found a cottage up a country lane near Clun, standing on its own in a fold of the hill on a bend in the road.  Windows with diamond leads looked out over golden fields of ripening grain and the gentle wooded hills of the Shropshire landscape.

These memories came back to me as I listened last week to Ruth Padel on Radio 3 talk about the badger in her series of essays, Wild Things, in which, drawing on a range of literary and historical examples, she considered how attitudes to five different creatures in the British landscape have changed and developed through the centuries and what each means to us now.  Her assertion was that the badger holds a very special place in British culture, both greatly loved for their character, but also ruthlessly harried and butchered – illegally for sport, and more recently, for reasons claimed to be justified by science.

The Tale of Mr Tod cover

Padel’s examples of badgers in literature included my own introduction to the beast – in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Mr Tod.  As Padel pointed out, this is an uncharacteristic representation of the animal, since Potter says at the outset that hers is a tale ‘ about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr Tod:

Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up. His clothes were very dirty; and as he slept in the day-time, he always went to bed in his boots.

Tale of Mr Tod Tommy Brock

As a child, I chuckled at Potter’s illustrations, especially the ones where Tommy Brock was shown lying in bed, grinning from ear to ear, with big teeth:

By degrees he ventured further in—right into the bedroom. When he was outside the house, he scratched up the earth with fury. But when he was inside—he did not like the look of Tommy Brock’s teeth.  He was lying on his back with his mouth open, grinning from ear to ear. He snored peacefully and regularly; but one eye was not perfectly shut.

Mr Tod sets out to trick Tommy Brock

‘At a very deep level’, argued Ruth Padel, ‘the British love and identify with old Brock’.  Like humans, she argued, they live communally, are omnivorous, and deeply territorial, inheriting their burrows from parents and grandparents and extending them down the generations.  They are very fussy over hygiene, demarcating separate areas for latrines, frequently renewing their bedding, and burying their dead. A more typical example of a book that has embedded the badger in the national conciousness is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows:

They waited patiently for what seemed a very long time, stamping in the snow to keep their feet warm. At last they heard the sound of slow shuffling footsteps approaching the door from the inside. It seemed, as the Mole remarked to the Rat, like some one walking in carpet slippers that were too large for him and down at heel; which was intelligent of Mole, because that was exactly what it was.

There was the noise of a bolt shot back, and the door opened a few inches, enough to show a long snout and a pair of sleepy blinking eyes.

`Now, the very next time this happens,’ said a gruff and suspicious voice, `I shall be exceedingly angry. Who is it this time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!’

`Oh, Badger,’ cried the Rat, `let us in, please. It’s me, Rat, and my friend Mole, and we’ve lost our way in the snow.’

`What, Ratty, my dear little man!’ exclaimed the Badger, in quite a different voice. `Come along in, both of you, at once. Why, you must be perished. Well I never! Lost in the snow! And in the Wild Wood, too, and at this time of night! But come in with you.’

The two animals tumbled over each other in their eagerness to get inside, and heard the door shut behind them with great joy and relief.

The Badger, who wore a long dressing-gown, and whose slippers were indeed very down at heel, carried a flat candlestick in his paw and had probably been on his way to bed when their summons sounded. He looked kindly down on them and patted both their heads. `This is not the sort of night for small animals to be out,’ he said paternally. `I’m afraid you’ve been up to some of your pranks again, Ratty. But come along; come into the kitchen. There’s a first-rate fire there, and supper and everything.’  […]

When at last they were thoroughly toasted, the Badger summoned them to the table, where he had been busy laying a repast. They had felt pretty hungry before, but when they actually saw at last the supper that was spread for them, really it seemed only a question of what they should attack first where all was so attractive, and whether the other things would obligingly wait for them till they had time to give them attention. Conversation was impossible for a long time; and when it was slowly resumed, it was that regrettable sort of conversation that results from talking with your mouth full. The Badger did not mind that sort of thing at all, nor did he take any notice of elbows on the table, or everybody speaking at once. As he did not go into Society himself, he had got an idea that these things belonged to the things that didn’t really matter. (We know of course that he was wrong, and took too narrow a view; because they do matter very much, though it would take too long to explain why.) He sat in his arm-chair at the head of the table, and nodded gravely at intervals as the animals told their story; and he did not seem surprised or shocked at anything, and he never said, `I told you so,’ or, `Just what I always said,’ or remarked that they ought to have done so-and-so, or ought not to have done something else. The Mole began to feel very friendly towards him.

When supper was really finished at last, and each animal felt that his skin was now as tight as was decently safe, and that by this time he didn’t care a hang for anybody or anything, they gathered round the glowing embers of the great wood fire, and thought how jolly it was to be sitting up so late, and so independent, and so full; and after they had chatted for a time about things in general, the Badger said heartily, `Now then! tell us the news from your part of the world’….

Badgers may be shy, but they are fierce fighters when provoked.  Their tough skin and hide, and thick layers of subcutaneous fat make them hard to kill.  As a consequence, badger-baiting has a long history on these islands.  John Clare wrote about it in his poem, ‘Badger’:

When midnight comes a host of dogs and men
Go out and track the badger to his den,
And put a sack within the hole, and lie
Till the old grunting badger passes by.
He comes an hears – they let the strongest loose.
The old fox gears the noise and drops the goose.
The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry,
And the old hare half wounded buzzes by.
They get a forked stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him to the town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
He runs along and bites at all he meets:
They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.

He turns about to face the loud uproar
And drives the rebels to their very door.
The frequent stone is hurled where’er they go;
When badgers fight, then everyone’s a foe.
The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray’
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.
The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,
Lies down and licks his feet and turns away.
The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold,
The badger grins and never leaves his hold.
He drives the crowd and follows at their heels
And bites them through – the drunkard swears and reels

The frighted women take the boys away,
The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray.
He tries to reach the woods, and awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.
He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans, and dies.

Although British legal protection of animals began in 1835 with the Cruelty to Animals Act, and continued with further legislation that outlawed ‘unnecessary suffering’, wild animals had no protection.  By the 1960s, with badger-digging increasingly popular, badgers were in decline.  In the 1970s protection was extended to badgers in the wild. But now, they are threatened more than ever – both by illegal badger-digging, and by plans to cull the badger population.

Today there are around 400,000 badgers in the UK.  50,000 are killed every year on the roads, while illegal badger-diggers account for 15,000 more.

The prospect of culling the badger population is a result of their association with bovine tuberculosis, one of the most difficult and costly animal health diseases facing the farming industry. The association between bovine tuberculosis in cattle and badgers is a complex and contentious issue. In 2007 the Independent Science Group published its final report , concluding that culling badgers was not an effective method of controlling the disease, and that increased cattle measures, including vaccination, would be more efficacious.

The badger was established in these islands two millenia before the arrival of humans.  They are, as Edward Thomas observed in ‘The Combe’, the ‘most ancient Briton of English beasts’:

The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth is stopped with brambles, thorn, and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper
Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots
And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,
The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds
Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,
Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark
The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,
Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,
That most ancient Briton of English beasts.

Kenneth Grahame, in The Wind In The Willows, has Badger say:

People come – they stay for a while, they flourish, they build – and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.

Ruth Padel concluded her essay with this observation:

Of all our British wild animals, it is the badgers which require us to ask: why should we value the wild, and what is a landscape anyway?  Is it ‘wild nature’ seen in human terms as ‘countryside’?  No, it’s wider, bigger, older than us.  It is not just for us, but outside us, and every wild species is part of it, including the badger. […]

These days we have to do something that sounds like a paradox: manage the wild.  Which also means managing aspects of ourselves, our own sense of entitlement to kill.  Blaming the wild is always the easiest option.  The greatness of a nation, and its moral progress, said Gandhi, can be judged by the way it treats its animals.

WH Auden wrote ‘Address to the Beasts’ in the summer of 1973, just months before he died:

For us who, from the moment
we first are worlded
lapse into disarray,

who seldom know exactly
what we are up to,
and, as a rule, don’t want to,

what a joy to know,
even when we can’t see or hear you,
that you are around,

though very few of you
find us worth looking at,
unless we come too close.

To you all scents are sacred
except our smell and those
we manufacture.

How promptly and ably
you execute Nature’s policies
and are never

lured into misconduct
except by some unlucky
chance imprinting.

Endowed from birth with good manners
you wag no snobbish elbows,
don’t leer,

don’t look down your nostrils
nor poke them into another
creature’s business.

Your own habitations
are cosy and private, not
pretentious temples.

Of course, you have to take lives
to keep your own, but never
kill for applause.

Compared with even your greediest
how Non-U
our hunting gentry seem.

Exempt from taxation,
you have never felt the need
to become literate,

but your oral cultures
have inspired our poets to pen
dulcet verses,

and, though unconscious of God,
your Sung Eucharists are
more hallowed than ours.

Instinct is commonly said
to rule you; I would call it
Common Sense.

If you cannot engender
a genius like Mozart,
neither can you

plague the earth
with brilliant sillies like Hegel
or clever nasties like Hobbes.

Shall we ever become adulted
as you all soon do?
It seems unlikely.

Indeed, one balmy day,
we might well become,
not fossils, but vapour.

Distinct now,
in the end we shall join you
(how soon all corpses look alike),

but you exhibit no signs
of knowing that you are sentenced.
Now that could be why

we upstarts are often
jealous of your innocence
but never envious?

And so, always and forever, a breeze riffles the pages of the book as the heat of the afternoon lifts from the garden, and we close the gate behind us to turn up the lane through the copse  for that magical encounter, at the end of a golden summer, when we met our badger. For millenia human encounters with other animals have woven a common thread through cultures as we have found meaning in them.  For us, the badger that crossed the track in Shropshire and came so close on that summer’s evening crystallizes a very special moment.  Nine months, later our daughter was born. Soon, we were reading to her: the Tale of Mr Tod and Wind In The Willows.

Badgers observed by Mark Cocker

Today’s Country Diary in The Guardian is an outstanding one, and reminded me of the time over a quarter of a century ago when myself and Rita were walking along a woodland trail near Clun in the early evening.  Suddenly we heard a ponderous crashing and out of the undergrowth plodded a badger;  it crossed the path oblivious to us, the only time before or since that we have had the privilege of seeing one, let alone so close.

Country Diary

Our usual routine while watching this badger’s sett is to sit on the hillside opposite, about 30m from the action. However, we agreed, by various silent gestures, to attempt to get closer. A breeze was blowing straight across the sett and down the line of an adjacent wall. So, screened by this, we crept upwind and stopped eventually, incredulous that the badgers still couldn’t see us. In fact, one proceeded down the wall almost underneath us and so close that we could detect the red clay smudges in his white blaze and the sharp inward breath as he paused to snout and grub for worms. We waited as he walked away and knew at some point that the angle of the wind would bring a badger’s super-sense into play. Who knows what microscopic part of vaporised human fatty acid carried from us to him, but sure enough he came dashing back to the sett still oblivious of our exact location, but absolutely certain that he smelt the presence of danger.

We assumed this comic moment was all we’d see of them, but his partner had remained grooming at the sett. Her untroubled demeanour must have reassured him because, as we casually passed their location, we suddenly realised they were still there. Separated by just three metres of April gloom, we watched this badger pair enfolded as a warm, supple ball of pied stripes, he scratching and nibbling her flea-tormented pelt as passionately as she herself. She reclined, her stub tail standing proud like a shaving brush, while he nuzzled her sexual parts and all around her swollen teats.

So much intimacy at such close range brought its own peculiar kind of tension. It was a glorious privilege but mingled with an uneasy feeling of deception. Had they not finally sensed that their mutual affection was not as private as it ought to have been, I think we would probably have whispered across, species to species, to resume more normal relations.

Mark Cocker
The Guardian, Monday 20 April 2009