In bustling inter-city London, my garden was a tiny haven for plants and wildlife. A hole in the bottom of the fence let hedgehogs safely meander and find food on their nightly foraging, without having to dare cross the street. Of course, there was a chorus of barks and meows from all my neighbours’ domestic pals.
However, in the long time I resided in West London, I encountered some infrequent visitors like urban foxes. One night, one was staring at me through the glass patio door, a rather manky caller. One-third of foxes in the U.K. forage and breed in towns, as they’re attracted to pet food left outside, garbage scraps and rodents aplenty.
On weekends, I liked to explore a bit, find towpaths or trails in natural areas around London. One favourite, just a Tube ride away, was Richmond Park on the western edge of London. It offered wide open spaces, grasslands, deer herds, ancient trees and abundant wildlife. A bird watcher’s dream! It had protected status as a National Nature Reserve and a European Special Area of Conservation.
A friend told me that in the early morning or at twilight, I might (if I was lucky) spot a very shy mammal there—badgers. She gave me some ideas about where to find known underground badger burrows, called setts, in the park. So, on a chilly autumn day, I headed off after lunch so I could arrive in Richmond an hour before sunset.
All across the suburbs of London, badgers are on the move, typically at twilight. They fatten up before the lean days of winter, using the cover of night to roam across parks, fields, woods and gardens in search of tasty earthworms, plump insects and fallen fruit. Badgers live in setts, which they excavate with powerful, clawed paws. A sett is usually a family affair, with up to eight animals sharing a network of tunnels. Although communal during the day, when they rest and sleep underground, at night each adult will set off to forage separately from the others.
Well-camouflaged for night work
The badger is well-camouflaged for night work, with a silvery-grey body, a short fluffy tail and a black belly and paws, all topped off with a black-and-white striped face. These strong, well-built animals can reach three feet (about 0.9 metres) in length, but are cautious and timid animals, preferring to avoid human contact (AKA ‘trouble’).
Badgers face many threats: 50,000 adult badgers are killed on British roads each year, and illegal persecution still occurs. Further, tens of thousands of badgers may be shot in a controversial experiment to eradicate tuberculosis in cattle. There is a strong local naturalist movement to try and stop it.
You can recognize a sett by its large oval-shaped hole, usually on the edge of woodlands. I found one a fair distance from the path and walked farther away, across the path, and sat down on a stump. I wore dark attire—clothes, a jacket, gloves and a hat—to appear less conspicuous and avoid frightening them away. No lavender soap that morning, as badgers can detect the faintest strange smell. The hardest thing was staying motionless while I waited. I tried to think of this experience as wild theatre.
Finally, as night was setting in, an adult badger with two juveniles emerged at the entrance to a sett. The adult (likely a female) twirled its nose to test the air like an expert sommelier. It was almost surreal. I got a full view of them before they scuttled off into the woods, but a good look. I laughed out loud, pulled out my flashlight from my pack, and quickly headed back to the entrance. I was bone-cold and tired, but giddy with excitement.
I wondered what Momma Badger thought of the bundled figure in a black beanie with a pom, clutching her binos to her face, trying to hold still. I hope I rated a “1” on the danger scale!
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image 1: Lyn Bratton; image 2: PBarlowArt
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