It has been well-documented that during the stressful lockdown periods of the Coronavirus, nature played a crucial role in helping us remain positive. We began to notice the minutiae of the wildlife that surrounds us. I set myself numerous goals and continue to relish photographing and recording a fascinating changing world through the seasons. Emerging dragonflies, backlit flowers, orchids and feathered grasses in the meadow, bees flitting from flower to flower, skeleton leaves stippled with dew, spider’s webs and the joy of garden birds. During 2020 I spent much time exploring the ways of badgers too. Hours passed as I began endeavours to photograph them absorbing myself totally in their behaviour, recognising individuals and learning more of their habits.
On the nights that I set forth on my mission, there is nervous excitement and anticipation. Will they appear? Then before I know it, a badger, ghost-like and silent in its approach, has emerged from the shadows and is close to me. It raises its head to test the air, recognising the scent of humans – not far away. Motionless, I must let the arrival settle to eat the food I have left out before I try to take pictures. One false move, and it will vanish – a spectre of twilight gone as if it was never there at all.
Sometimes on my daily walks, I follow where the animal paths lead me. Woodcock erupt from the leaf litter. There was a notable increase of these lovely waders in the winter of 2020/21 due to extreme weather in Russia and Scandinavia. The rich, dark boggy areas where red deer have made their wallows provide ideal places for these waders to guddle and feed during challenging weather. When the undergrowth has died back, a lattice of previously unnoticed tracks emerges. Though you may seldom see badgers, once you recognise the signs – tell-tale round snuffle holes, latrine sites and broad spore on bare earth, there is endless proof of their exciting nocturnal peregrinations. And you may find coarse grey hairs caught on fence wires into fields beneath which a badger has squeezed its ample figure.
I visit setts to check on activity and sit quietly on the hillside beneath a vast sprawling oak, or at another on a sandy bank, or one deep in bluebells woods. I try to visualise the complex labyrinth of tunnels beneath me where occupants will likely be asleep in dry leaves and bracken. To accuse the badger of being dirty and stinking is ironic for they keep setts immaculate, constantly removing and replacing old bedding. Dirty? The way badgers create latrine pits puts us repulsive humans to shame as we litter the countryside with toilet paper and leave dog shit in plastic bags swinging on fences.
Some setts are extensive with mountainous spoil heaps created by generations of diggers. Some have numerous entrances, and some outlying setts connect over great distance – all are intriguing, but I closely guard precise locations for badgers are vulnerable and not everyone loves them as I do. Trees around the area and great fallen limbs bear scratch marks scored by long, front claws – like inscriptions on Indian totem poles. I recently found a perfect badger skull discarded amongst old bedding and returned triumphantly to study the extraordinary sagittal crest along the top of the head.
So why is there so much hatred towards badgers? Perhaps it’s because we are incapable of looking at ourselves and recognising that we expect wild things to fit in with us and not the other way around. In almost all cases, it is what we are doing that leads to conflict with nature. When it comes to the badger-hedgehog issue, I firmly believe that even though some badgers do eat hedgehogs, and perhaps more than they once did, it’s ecological madness to contemplate culling one species in favour of another. Badgers and hedgehogs have co-existed forever. But when the environment is so impoverished with natural food in short supply, is it so hard to understand that opportunists adapt to survive? When two species compete for a similar food, the larger, more powerful one will come out on top. This situation is called an intra-guild prey relationship. While badgers exist underground, hedgehogs conversely have lost much of the very habitat their name suggests they need – hedges. Habitat loss has made them even more vulnerable. Hedgehogs brought to me throughout the year seem weakened, and at a shockingly low ebb, almost depressed—all the more vulnerable to an opportunist like the badger. With a massive crash in invertebrates due to our activities – chemicals, pollutants, and intensive management, the knock-on effect on up the food chain is drastic. Land that was once farmed sympathetically in a rotation leaving much for nature, is, in many cases, an environmental desert only productive due to massive infusions of artificial nutrients. You cannot blame farmers either – badgers, beavers, birds of prey whatever the conflict, politics are at the root of this disharmony. As farmers are more squeezed, the only way to help ease the situation is undoubtedly significant financial incentives to leave space for wildlife. You could view that nature is effectively literally paying rent for its rightful place and space in our mad world.
When I first came to the small farm in Highland Perthshire, 21 years ago, it was barren and over-grazed. Now having planted over 5000 trees and numerous hedges, the wildlife is returning. So when I rise in the morning and find that my nocturnal visitors have rearranged the flowerbeds and rumbled up the grass or dug out a wild bees’ nest in a bank, leaving irate occupants fizzing around in a fury, I smile. My garden belongs to the badgers, indeed all wild things, as much as me. We need predators just as we need prey. We have done enough damage and now must take a long hard look at ourselves and understand that time is fast running out, and remember too that we need nature, but nature does not need us.