In Praise Of Dawn: On Badgers, Night Owls And Not Being One

The tawny owls in the trees around my house have been in fine voice recently. Usually, there’s a fairly even split between the sexes – the high-pitched female tawnies with their “to-wits” (which is actually more like “to-WEEEEEET” in reality) and the more bassy and insouciant male tawnies with their answering “to-woos” – but one night last week I got the strong sense that the field to one side of the house had been sectioned off for a purely female owl event. A leaving do, perhaps, or an owlbum launch party. Several lady tawnies screeched, kind of casually at first, then with a growing intensity, until after a whole hour a lothario manowl chimed in with a low-key yet confident “woo-woo”, like the Owl Fonz quietly entering a room full of leather-clad rock and roll girls. “Do not panic,” he seemed to be saying. “As you will soon discover, there’s more than enough of me to go around.”

At around quarter to six, the baton carried by these owls is handed over to the Dawn Chorus. Occasionally, a stray owl will get confused and join in, like Leonard Cohen walking in on a Martha And The Vandellas recording session by mistake, but largely the melodies are all upbeat from that point on. From now until the end of May this song will grow into a lavish masterpiece, as a string section is added here, a new backing vocal or two there. It has its avant garde elements, too. My favourite of these right now is the woodpecker which works tirelessly on a Red Oak behind my garden between six and nine every day. The sound it makes is uncannily similar to the one the creaky wooden gate to my garden makes upon being opened by my postman. “Ooh, I have mail,” I will sometimes think, when in reality I just have woodpecker.

It is typically during the half an hour before the owls hand over their baton that I wake up. “What kind of insanity is that?” you might ask, which is perfectly understandable, but also ask yourself this: Did you have a dad who played loud 1960s Congolese pop and doo-wop music every morning at 6am when you were a teenager, and crashed around the house as if he’d turned the volume up on each of its fittings, not to mention himself? Who knows: maybe you did, and you are a more stubborn and resilient individual than me. I, however, am thoroughly trained as a Morning Person, but I suspect I would have been one anyway, even without the help of my dad’s Franco and Diblo Dibala albums and regular, evangelical “I’VE BEEN UP SINCE FIVE” announcements. After all, most of my blood relatives are Morning People, I work most successfully in the morning, and – like so many morning people – I have had additional training from pet cats, who treat my bedroom as a nocturnal service station. Also, there is no getting away from it: I really really like mornings.

I know that this is a desperately uncool thing to admit. Oscar Wilde said “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast” – which is utter bollocks, but sounds pithy and smart, and makes you seem devastatingly hip to actual dull people if you quote it in your favour. Announcing “I’m a night owl” is full adulthood’s equivalent of a flamboyantly lit underaged cigarette. It’s a statement designed to impress: all people who say it naturally seem more interesting and mysterious. Perhaps they frequent jazz clubs and consort with beatniks and intellectuals? Certainly they must do something fascinating with their lives and not just, say, stay up late scrolling through Facebook. My love of mornings is not synonymous of an antipathy towards nighttime or Night People, though. I can happily go to bed late but I’ll still invariably be awake at dawn. If I choose an early night, it’s out of a mixture of self-knowledge and self-preservation. Recently there’s been an extra incentive to get up early, too: I have badgers in my garden, and have been attempting to record their nocturnal activities on a trailcam. 

On Sunday morning, I rushed down to get the memory card out of the trailcam. The trees and hedges in the surrounding countryside were painted with sparkly mist and a psychedelic folk sun was rising over the river. I walked down to the water’s edge in my pyjamas and saw a kingfisher zipping along above the surface, fish in mouth. As I walked back along the lane, a van pulled up beside me and the driver wound his window down. “Bloody hell, the things you see around here in the morning!” he said. “I thought you were an escaped convict from Dartmoor Prison.” It was Ian, my local plumber. Ian is a Morning Person too, and it is his trailcam I’ve been using to film the badgers. 
“Any luck today?” he asked.
“Only a magpie,” I said. “At least it was the right sort of colour scheme.”

So far, in a week and a half of trying to catch my local badgers on cam – ignoring the one time I caught a tail in the corner of the screen – I’ve managed to get one good short video of one scuffling about. I have also managed to record four other moving things which are manifestly not badgers: that magpie, two field mice, my left leg, and my cat Roscoe returning from a hunting expedition with a mole dangling from her mouth. I said “Good morning Mr Magpie, and how’s your wife?” to the magpie. I always say “Good morning Mr Magpie, and how’s your wife?” to solitary magpies, as superstition dictates that I must, but doing so can become very tiring as there are a lot of magpies where I live and very few of them are in steady relationships.
I first noticed that I had badgers in my garden last summer, when one was generous enough to go through my recycling and separate plastic from aluminium, which was actually needless, as South Hams District Council ask that you put it all in the same bag. I fed some badgers on the hillside near my house some peanuts, then a sett briefly appeared in the top corner of my garden. Just over a month ago I noticed a very well-defined track leading across my lawn to another: more of a badger A road than a byway. I think my badgers have got wise to the trailcam now and stopped using this route. Last night I put dry roasted peanuts and dry cat food down for them but all I got on the camera was another mouse, and even he seemed self-conscious. Yet I woke up at four thirty, looked down from my bedroom window and saw what, even in the gloom, I could clearly discern was a rambunctious badger. I got the vague sense that it was doing a little cocky dance to itself. I thought about going down to join it, but decided not, being scantily clad and remembering the story someone told me last year of being bitten on the bottom by a badger in the garden at a house party in Exeter.

After I’d waved bye to Ian on Sunday, I threw on some more respectable clothes and set off again along the river. The only other person I saw for the first mile was a man I often spot giving a running commentary on events to his pet bulldog. “It’s cold, isn’t it?” I will overhear him saying to the bulldog. “I bet you wish you had a coat. Do you like my coat?” Or: “We’re going to the supermarket soon, then we’re going to John’s house. This tree just here is weird.” Without really intending to, I always keep a mental list of the top three characters I see on local walks. It alternates a little, and sometimes there’s an exciting new addition, but for quite some time now the order has gone as follows:

  1. Lycra Santa.
  2. Man Who Narrates Events To His Bulldog As They Occur.
  3. Woman Who Never Says Hello Back To Me And Smiles Like She Has A Little Secret.

As I got further along the Dart, the path became trickier to negotiate, due to the trees that had fallen in the gales of the previous week. A man ahead of me came to a fallen hawthorn and turned back. I hurdled it and pressed on. As the sun burned through the mist, the countryside had a refreshed, healthy look, but I worried about the trees. So many of them seem to come down so frequently here. My friend David, who is a tree surgeon, has had his work cut out recently, what with that, and the squirrels, who have wreaked particular havoc on the Beeches around here. “A lot of it is about sexual frustration,” he told me. “The male squirrels get horny, and they can’t find a mate, so they attack some bark.” Sometimes when I walk I will see David swinging above me from a branch, wielding a chainsaw. He’s been doing this for thirty years but he’s never sustained any serious cuts, or broken a limb. Every time I see him, I get a jealous pang, remembering a time when I couldn’t walk past a tree without climbing it, and wondering where my life went wrong and diverged from its god-ordained path.

Beside the river, the smell of wild garlic was intoxicating, and I felt dizzy with spring and its possibilities. I notice its stuffed hedgerow explosion so much more here in south Devon than I did before, even when I lived in rural Norfolk – perhaps because it’s that much more day-glo and widescreen – and feel I have to grab every second of it in my fist. I had a mountain of jobs and unreplied messages at home, all of which I’d promised myself I’d get on top of today, but here I was, walking and walking, further out into the day and away from responsibility. 

It’s not been a cold winter here but it has been a very dark and wet one. This goes a long way to explaining my love of mornings right now: this is the season you remember they exist, especially after a particularly bad winter. You certainly cannot call that bit of sometimes very slightly brightening murk you get between nine and twelve in December, January and February “a morning”. A morning was this: watching above from a high primrose-lined bank in crystal light as a swan flew, perfectly tracing the elbow of a tidal creek.
Staying loose about my ultimate destination, I turned down a holloway banked by dew-dampened moss and action painting shale, and headed vaguely in the direction of a pub I’d never been to, but always intended to. My route took me past an empty, ivy-suffocated barn that looked like a West Country answer to the Bat Cave. At the pub I read the recollections of old shepherds in Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay, George Ewart Evans’s wonderful 1950s book about old Suffolk farming community lives. I was particularly taken by a passage about a sheep shearer who, during the off season, worked as a hairdresser, and would make extra use of his shears to “take off the rough” off his clients’ barnets before “trimming the rest up” with his scissors. 

Inspired, I took a detour on my route home to see my favourite giant white sheep. I’d only been to see her three days before and worried she might view it as overkill, but she was as friendly as ever. I originally came face to face with this sheep on a footpath in 2014 and, seeing her blocking my way, took a detour, mistaking her for a double hard headcase. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only she is extremely cuddly and personable, she is clearly a very open-minded sheep, and often found happily hanging out with a group of brown zwartbles from a neighbouring pasture. 

I’d yomped for thirteen miles already, the sun was dipping and the day clearly wasn’t going to get any better than this. I knew the final part of the walk would be tinged with an extra melancholy, in addition to that which naturally comes with saying goodbye to a day as heavenly as this. On the edges of my local town, Totnes, vast scars are appearing on the previously green hillsides in every direction. Famously, graffiti artists used to proudly add “Twinned With Narnia” to the town sign, then, later, “Twinned With Area 51”, but recently the sign has been defaced again to say something more depressing: “Twinned With Linden Homes” – a reflection of the strength of local feeling about the executive home developments being vomited onto one of the most beautiful stretches of countryside in Britain. Is it greedy to complain about these? I’d just walked through five of the most unspoilt miles imaginable, along creek beds and rivers, spotting two lizards along the way, shooting back and forth under the brightening bracken. A lot of people in the centre of the country would auction a close member of their family for that. But there’s nothing about these developments that smacks of necessity: they’re “executive homes”, big uninspired expensive boxes. One estate calls itself ‘Origins’, presumably to commemorate the origins of stoats, deer and owls losing their homes. Devon is somewhat culturally isolated from the rest of the country, and there’s not a lot of work here, but the upside has always been that it’s astonishingly green and ruggedly beautiful. But now it’s starting to look like going down to the woods here is going to be like going down to the woods in most other places: you’re in for a big surprise, which is that the woods aren’t there any more and have been replaced with an identikit estate called ‘The Woods’. The building and naming of these places work on the same logic of a large powerful man killing a defenceless chicken then renaming himself ‘The Chicken’ afterwards. The developers of these estates are selling a rural dream, yet bludgeoning the dream itself – not to mention a local infrastructure – as they do so. But it’s ok. No doubt there’ll be a break at some point, maybe in a year or so. All the roadworks will be gone and there’ll be a brief period of respite, until the next lot of protected land is sold off to make rich people richer and the next, and the next, until, finally, almost all the magic of dawn in the countryside will have been sucked away, and for miles around a spring morning will be signified by little more than the sound of some people waking up and starting some cars where some badgers used to live.

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12 thoughts on “In Praise Of Dawn: On Badgers, Night Owls And Not Being One

  1. This was an emotional roller coaster of a post. I love the early morning walk, the way you describe it. I'm a morning person, too. But the sadness of the beautiful countryside being destroyed for the sake of money seems just too much at times. I'm in Michigan, where there are still a lot of gorgeous places to walk and see. But they're destroying it at too fast a rate for me, too.

    I'm glad you've captured what have for us. The pictures were gorgeous, and it was a truly lovely read.


  2. Proper lush. I was brought up in the South Hams on the edge of Dartmoor and reading this wre
    nched my guts in that "go back to whence you came my lover" way.

  3. The last bit makes me incredibly sad, I grew up in the.bush in Australia, surrounded on three sides by big hills, fast running creeks and empty land. By the time I left home two sides had been subdivided, and last year they subdivided the really hilly bit. My old house is now surrounded by a brash new suburb, called something bush estate. They.tore it all down, the trees, filled in the creek, the ponds and named it after the real bush.that had once been there.

  4. Such a sad ending to think of that beautiful countryside being carved up for estates. I live no where near the country, but even around my area so many green spaces or beautiful large properties have been turned into rows and rows of townhouses.

    I adore your badger footage. We don't have badgers in Australia, and I tried very hard to see one when I was in the UK once, but with no luck. They seem elusive.

    I am also a morning person these days. Something nice about being up and about early in the day.

  5. I am reassured to learn that other people also say "How's your wife?" to a single magpie, and I'll add in the "Morning Mr. Magpie", as your version is more polite than mine

  6. Tom, your writing is breath-takingly beautiful, evocative. I was on that walk with you. I have family in Devon and remember a time from my childhood staying with an aunt and three cousins (with two of my brothers); walking over the fields to Countisbury School and stopping by one to feed a horse who always came over to say 'hello'. As a 'townie' from Edgware, Middlesex, those times were idyllic. We used to roam free through the fields, meadows, woods and mini forests on various adventures. There was a river which could only be crossed by way of a 'conveniently' fallen tree. Each one of us, without any fear, inched our way across the log to the other side and on to more adventures.
    It's so sad the way the green belt is being carved up for the super rich while the poor and needy are stuck in below standard accommodation because social housing isn't keeping up with demand.

  7. A wonderful piece of writing Tom. I visited Totnes recently and from my friend's window, on Blackpost Lane, where once there were green fields, there is now the scar of development. It's very sad, and indicative not only of greed, but of our burgeoning population. 🙁

  8. That's all about spot on and beautiful. Same thing happens here in the states where they name the ugly developments after what they destroyed to put them in.

    Wish folk wouldn't let their cats run around killing wildlife, mind. Cumulatively it's a huge loss, surpassed of course by what people run over with their cars. But we have no concern for what's wild anymore. Perhaps we never have.

    Hope the badger set up finally works. Be well.

  9. I always panic when I see a magpie because I get confused about what to say! I usually end up muttering something unintelligible and then panicking about some awfulness that will befall me because I didn't do it right. I will ask about the wife in future but what if it's a female magpie?! As always, thank you for your thoughts and observations, Tom… Inspiring, cheering and thought-provoking. X

  10. For what it's worth, the developers here in Central Texas aren't satisfied eating up the landscape. They feel compelled to change the face of East Austin as well, pushing families out who have been there for generations in order to build trendy Tiny Homes, the width of a single room. The developers are invariably from California, so it's not their own neighborhoods that they spoil. They don't even move here. Just destroy our way of life from a distance, for money.

  11. This post had a bit of everything – I love the way I can go on a nature walk as I read and feel like I have been down deep in the holloway and emerged to tickle the head of a big white sheep! (This isn't The People Sheep is it? )
    I am interested in the words used by developers – it can be subtle. Has anyone noticed how it is always cosy friendly sounding 'homes' which are to be built, never 'new houses' . Of course the sites have been sold by local landowners at some point. Probably before they moved somewhere else.

  12. Now I wish I didn't do my best work at night. 🙁

    I am slowly becoming more of a morning person, or at least an early-to-bed person, but I have a ways to go before enjoying the pleasures of 4:30 a.m. badger-watching, or, around here, possum-watching.

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