‘Only if they can watch badgers without the badgers knowing they have been watched can observers consider themselves true naturalists.’
from Nature Detective, by Hugh Falkus
It may be useful to write a few words about the practice of badger watching, both to help anyone who feels like following the same path, and also to make some sense of the strange actions I describe in the fieldnotes. For instance, why do I seem to spend so much time sitting in trees?
In theory, badger watching is quite simple. Unlike other animals, which move around within a given territory, badgers have a clearly defined home in the form of their sett. This fixes their position. Add to this the fact that they are nocturnal: they come out as it gets dark. This fixes a time. This means that to watch badgers, all one needs to do is to be at an occupied sett around the time of dusk (with permission, of course), and sooner or later the badgers will put in an appearance.
The key to successful watching is to avoid alerting the badgers to your presence. Most badgers are truly wild. Some become habituated to people, and many will take food from gardens, even under bright lights, but most are wild. Having been persecuted by humans for hundreds of years you cannot blame them for being suspicious. Any hint of your presence is likely to disturb them, and at best you will not see the full range of behaviours that relaxed badgers would show, and at worst you will not see the badgers at all.
The first thing to remember is to approach the sett stealthily. Aim to be there at least an hour or so before dusk. Don’t come crashing in noisily, as the badgers may already be above ground when you arrive. You may scare them now without ever realising it and wonder why you spent the rest of the evening staring at an empty wood.
A badger’s sense of smell is very keen, so you need to make sure that you approach and watch from downwind of the sett, in other words that the wind is blowing from the sett to you and not the other way round. This means that your scent is carried away behind you and not towards the badgers. Similarly, try not to walk over the sett entrances or the main badger paths, as your scent may linger here for quite a while.
One trick I use a lot is to climb up a tree and watch from there. Being above ground means that your scent is carried away rather than along the ground, and you are also well away from any foraging badgers that may stumble upon you. Of course, this technique depends on having climbable trees in the area of the sett, and it isn’t always comfortable. I use an inflatable cushion, which makes sitting for hours on a branch a little more bearable. There’s also the actual climbing of the tree to consider, which can be a bit of an adventure in the dark when you’re cold and wet and laden with gear.
You will need to wear dark, drab clothing that blends in with the background and won’t rustle. Badgers see movement fairly well, so it is important to keep still. It is also best to avoid silhouetting yourself against the skyline, so sitting with your back to a tree is a good idea, and more comfortable too. Don’t get too close to the sett – start by watching from about 30 feet away until you know you can move closer. Bring binoculars if you have them – it is better to sit further away and watch with binoculars than to try and get too close. A 7×50 pair works well in the dim light of dusk, and actually allows you to see more in the half-light than you can with the naked eye.
Wrap up warmly too. It is surprising how cold a summer evening can be, especially when you are not moving around. If you’ve brought a jumper with you, put it on when you arrive, so you won’t disturb the badgers by doing it later.
If you’re lucky, the badgers will come out while it is still light. They’ll come out cautiously; sniffing the air to make sure that it is safe. Keep still. Resist the urge to turn round, point, grab the camera or make any other sudden moves. Let the badger settle down and come out when it’s ready. Sometimes the badgers will emerge and trot off almost immediately to begin feeding. At other times you can see the whole family as they sit around, have a good scratch and generally relax together.
Some people recommend using a torch to illuminate the badgers, but I’ve never done this. I think the advantages are outweighed by the disturbance. In summer the badgers will come out while there is plenty of light, and they’ll usually be gone from the sett by the time it is fully dark. However, you may want to bring a torch with you so you can find your way home. If you’re not used to it, wandering around a wood in the dark can be quite disorientating.
After a while, the badgers will amble off to begin the night’s business of feeding and foraging. Now is the time to leave. But again, try and be as stealthy as possible to avoid disturbing the badgers. In my view, disturbing badgers is unpardonable. When disturbed, badgers are slow to come out and feed, and by interrupting their routine the careless badger watcher is potentially causing them harm. Above all, the welfare of the badgers must come first, so we owe it to them to avoid disturbance as much as possible. If you can’t watch them without alarming them, then don’t watch them at all.
So there you have it. Of course, the practice of badger watching can become more complicated than this. In the posts I go into more detail, so have a look at the fieldnotes for more practical hints and personal experiences, but I hope that I’ve given you the general idea.