Sound travels in a curious way on the hillside where I live here in Devon. The sudden dips and rises in the land and the dense canopies of the area’s countless trees can create deceptive pockets of noise. What you think is, say, your girlfriend or your cat talking to you might not even be something vaguely similar to your girlfriend or your cat, and might not be talking to you at all. My first big lesson about this arrived last summer, when I mistakenly attempted to call an elderly Spanish tourist into the kitchen for some mass-produced trout chunks coated in gravy. Armed with experience, I’m more sceptical now, so last Wednesday when, just as I was falling asleep, I heard a warthog slaughtering a chicken behind my garden hedge, I responded relatively calmly. At the same time, the sound was quite loud and alarming enough to draw me to the bedroom window. I watched the spot where it came from until a short, squat man emerged on all fours through the leaves and began to crawl across the lawn.
My house is in quite a rural spot, but in summer the fields around it can be popular hang-out spots for teenagers from the local town, who like to use them to experiment with alcohol and drugs and self-consciously demo some of the new loud adult voices they’re working on. A few even turned up and did some rapping behind my garden last summer, although this clearly needed some work and resulted in the female members of their party making an early exit. It’s still a bit early for south Devon’s posh DIY hip-hop season to fully kick in and I have little experience with warthogs so I was glad, peering more closely at my lawn through the dark, to discover that the intruder on my lawn on this occasion was in fact a large badger. Seeing its form gradually unblur, I felt like I’d just watched something walk through a partition in reality. Grabbing my camera and the nearest pair of trousers, I tripped my way hurriedly to the back door. The badger was nowhere to be seen when I arrived outside but, alerted by a grumbly rustling, I found it a couple of minutes later behind the garden gate and managed to snap a quick grainy photo before it scuttled off, with a “just been victimised at an unfair disciplinary meeting at work” air about it.
If you see one badger a year in Britain, you feel pretty good about yourself. If you see several in the space of twenty four hours, you feel like you’re walking on a magic cloud cushion. Until last year, I’d never seen a live badger up close at all. It wasn’t until 1977 that one was first shown on TV (on the now legendary Badgerwatch). Being on such a high from seeing my first badger of 2015 – and a bit too engrossed in a Garrison Keillor podcast – accounted for the fact that, walking over the crest of a hill a few hundred yards from my house on the way to the shops the next day, I didn’t even notice until the last minute that I’d almost stood on another, much smaller badger.
As I continued through the woods towards town a mixture of feelings set in: annoyance at my absent-mindedness, elation, and the special, rare kind of remorse that comes from almost treading on a very young badger. I remembered the golf club I was a member of in Norfolk a decade or so ago, which would devote several pages of its year-end AGM report to the ongoing “badger problem” on the seventh fairway. I laughed at the time and mentally urged the badgers on in their scraping away of the fairway’s finely mown turf, despite the difficult lies it would give me for iron shots in future tournaments, but now I realised my urging had been insufficient. If I had the courage of my convictions, I shouldn’t have been a member of a golf club at all. I should have been on the fairway at night, with a bag of worms, staging a badger sit in.
Determined to make amends, armed with a party bowl of peanuts and cat biscuits, I set off at dusk back up to the hilltop where I’d almost trod on the young badger. A further surprise greeted me when I arrived: not just the original young badger from earlier, snuffling about on the mown turf, but a shyer, smaller sibling, in the longer grass and weeds a few feet away. Neither seemed hugely aware of me and I crouched in the grass and watched them for quarter of an hour or so, then scattered the peanuts and cat biscuits, which they duly chomped. It wasn’t until I’d got within about two feet of the bolder badger that it scuttled away. I was reminded of something I’d noticed last year, when I’d got my first close up of a badger: that they don’t run in quite the same way you see the other four-legged furry animals of Britain run. The way badgers run is a bit like a garish 1960s fur footstool might run if it suddenly realised it had the power of functioning limbs.
A couple of days later, I noticed the beginning of a sett in a rough patch of ground beside my garden fence. Walking around in my post-badger cotton wool dream world, I found myself twisting the conversation repeatedly back around to my badger sightings when I spoke to strangers: a woman I bought a stilton pasty from, a walker who asked me directions to the river. This proved to be less of a non-sequitur on Sunday, when I visited The West Country Scythe Festival at Thorney Lakes in Somerset and spoke to Leslie from the Dorset For Badger & Bovine Welfare Group. As well as feeding the badgers near her garden peanuts and grapes, Leslie regularly makes peanut butter sandwiches for them. She also recently fed them some leftover ratatouille from her freezer. “They loved it,” she explained. “But they ran off with the dish. It was a nice dish, too.”
Leslie talked to me about the ongoing badger cull, its insubstantial supportive scientific evidence and astronomical cost, and the new plans which will almost certainly see it moving from Somerset into Dorset, and subsequently to Devon. I don’t want to write in detail about the cull here, as you’ll find plenty of far more serious and informed writing about it elsewhere online, but I urge everyone to read Rob Cowen’s wonderful new book Common Ground, which features a rigorous explanation of the nebulous facts and Tory power lust directly behind the cull.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the badger chapter coincides with the amazingly powerful, optimistic crescendo of Cowen’s book: a rousing argument for sensitivity over cynicism when approaching the complex issues surrounding the future of the British countryside. Humans interfering with nature is part of nature itself. But how far the interference should go – how much it’s about our own greed and pride – is the big question. I’d been feeling a little glum in the early part of last week, thinking about another five years of a government which, at least in part, actively supports bloodsports, looking at the scars that two large new executive housing developments had put in beautiful, wild hillsides in my neighbourhood, readying myself for the cold mockery of street names commemorating the very things they’d destroyed (interesting how rarely you get a “Dead Weasel Close” or “Evicted Hawk Moth Avenue” on such developments). It is easy to get bogged down in such thoughts right now, feeling like something precious and pure is ending, in a far bigger and more significant way than the way that something precious and pure has always been ending, throughout history. But badgers are still here – small snouty folk rock bears, quietly yet magically outside the humdrum – and there are people out there willing to devote huge amounts of their free time to their protection. I’ve not done anything nearly so selfless, but I have been up to feed mine peanuts, chick peas and cat biscuits every night since I first met them. Sitting in the long grass, in the divine, heavy stillness of a mid-summer dusk, looking into a small, fresh stripy face, it’s been hard to feel anything but hope.
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