It’s not long until June now. The leaves of the trees near my house have locked into their dark-green biochemical morph, the hawthorns are holding on, and the elderflower crop is waiting just around the corner - the initial scald of spring is giving way to the simmer of summer.
It also mean the beginning of The Wildlife Trusts’ initiative #30dayswild isn’t too far away.
This year (only the second time it has run) over 16,000 people have signed up for the challenge of doing something ‘wild’ (e.g. spending some time outside) everyday in June.
Although this is primarily aimed at getting people who don’t normally interact with nature to spend time out of their houses and into the elements, I found myself absorbed in it last year and, along with Kew Garden’s Grow Wild, it’s one of the finest nature-based social media campaigns out there at the moment (I’ll be sporting my ‘I heart wild’ badge next month). Looking forwards to this, I decided it doesn’t have to start in June.
A few weekends ago I found myself away from London in a corner of Gloucestershire. With an evening to spare my girlfriend and I decided to peer into the gloaming and try to spot some badgers.
This was exciting: although I’ve spent years studying mammals, I’ve never actually seen badgers – the UK’s largest carnivore – in the wild. A few weeks previously, Jess had spotted an extensive sett in some fields near her home and, as the weather was fine, we thought this was the night to set off and try to spot some mustelids.
The sett (which for you etymologically minded folks comes from cete - the old collective noun for a lot of badgers), was spread over a pretty large area, with about seven entrances, all with a decent amount of displaced earth sitting outside the runs, and each about ten meters apart. Underneath could have been hundreds of meters of tunneling (around a quarter of a hectare) complete with cubbing, breeding, and sleeping chambers, and it very well could have been habited for decades - indeed some setts have been used for hundreds of years. The view of the landscape any badgers exiting their home would have seen wouldn’t have changed that much should that have been the case.
It was quite a hike to get up the the sett, which was set on the slope of a hill. Although I hadn’t banked on a bank, this isn’t that unusual when it comes to the placement of setts - in fact, over 85% of badger homes are found on land with an incline, which helps the badgers when it comes to removing excess soil, allowing good drainage, and being able to find good spots for tunneling through differing soil layers.
So we were there, having had as bland a-smelling dinner as possible, and wearing as many dull-coloured layers as we could find. The first of these precautions was the most important. As badgers are crepuscular/nocturnal, they’re eyesight is not their most well developed sense. It would seem that at some point in their history they depended on their striking facial colouring to warn of their ferocity to would be predators (wolves?), but in terms of their own vision, it appears not to be too fantastic. Their olfactory system, however, is something extraordinary (the surface area afforded to enhance their sense of smell thanks to the extensive scroll-like bones of their nasal regions is huge), and most badger-watchers highlight the importance of keeping downwind from them in order to get within a decent distance from them.
We hunkered down, half-sat, half-lying on the hill side, looking up at the sett. It was after a good half an hour that started becoming aware that a few more layers would have been a good idea in order to lie on, but the prospect of seeing something black and white and wholly new (for me), was enough to make us stay as still and quiet as possible.
It was frustrating to be sat under the sett, looking up, as the mounds of earth hid what activity might have been happening on the other side, but we couldn’t chance moving due to the direction of the wind, and the rustling of our clothing. We had arrived just shy of an hour before sunset, and the limitations of our own eyes had began to show. Our daylight adapted-retinas, without a tapetum to rely on, where soon struggling to make out details on the hillside.
Then, we heard a noise. It wasn’t what I had expected, a muffled scratching, or a snuffling as a curious rhinarium probed out of one of the runs, but it was a steady, quick, rhythmical patter which was soon twinned with a lightning fast, blurred movement of something crashing our of the field just over the horizon and the peak of the hill, terminating somewhere on the other side of the sett.
As much as I wish I’d seen a family of badgers foraging around their home that night, or vocalizing a challenge to an intruding boar, this was as much badger as I saw on that, my first attempt at badger-watching.
At first, Jess and I hadn’t even been sure that that was what we had seen, but that rapid smudge had been led by a splash of white - it was a snout - all of it that I would have been able to make out in the twilight, but unmistakable.
Badgers aren’t always thought of as being the most active creatures, but this may be a result of their habits being constrained to those times of the day most of us are not traipsing around hillsides. Badgers dig, but they can also climb and, as I discovered that night, may gallop as well as trot, being able to run at speeds of 25-30 kph.
So I had, sort of, seen a badger, but unfortunately, that was all we saw that night. Perhaps we weren’t downwind enough, perhaps our hands, not covered in gloves, gave our presence away. Perhaps, had we been on the other side of the set, we would have seen a few, curious animals making their way out of their sett. Indeed, as we started to make our way home, we moved around up the hill so we could see a slightly more elevated angle and, sure enough, there was the path that the badger had careered down. I hope it had been spooked by something in the next field, and not by the humans sat twenty-five meters away.
So, I learnt something that night - that badgers could actually move extremely fast if they wanted to - but I also found something else out.
As badger activity increases at around about sunset, I had been waiting, after we had found what we assumed was the best position, for the sun to set. I knew this was going to be around eight thirty and, around this time, I took my phone out - as quietly as I could and checked to see what the time was.
It was Jess who pointed out the lunacy of this. I was surrounded by sky, aware of the temperature dropping as the sun moved lower, and yet - out of habit - I had automatically checked the time, rather than checking the sky.
This is why #30dayswild is important - even for people who think of themselves as outdoors-types who try to spend as much time outside as possible. No matter how seriously I was trying to take badger watching, I was still, automatically, tied to the technology I had become habituated to. This wasn’t a terrible moment - if anything it was just embarrassing - but I’m hoping by the end of June, after watching a wild patch near my home alter each day as it proceeds further into summer, I’ll start to wean myself off my reliance on technology when trying to take in my natural environment.
I’m hoping that my ID skills are going to improve - that I’ll begin to learn the sorts of things I otherwise would rely on google to teach me. That I’ll be able to recognise things without the assistance of my phone and dichotomous keys.
And, hopefully, be able to tell the time without automatically reaching for my phone. I don’t know what I’ll pick up, but I’m looking forwards to finding out.