When Labour MP Ron Davies was asked to explain what he was doing visiting the countryside at night in a well-known gay meeting area, he famously replied that he was ‘watching badgers’. I mused on this as I walked through our village last night. If for some reason I had been stopped and asked to explain what I was doing, how would I explain why I was carrying a red light and a night vision scope while wearing (among other things) a camouflage jacket and a pair of ladies’ tights? I expect I would have weakly stammered out the same reason that Ron did. I can’t vouch for him, but in my case it happened to be true.
It has been a while since I have seen a badger. Partly this is due to family commitments, partly because I’ve confined my badger watching to the summer months when it is possible to observe them in daylight in the long evenings. I’ve always tried to keep the main badger sett I watch as wild and undisturbed as possible, and for this reason I’ve never used artificial lights there. However, I bought myself a night vision scope last year, so it should be possible to watch the badgers in complete darkness. Everything came together at the same time – I now have time to go out in the evenings, I have the means to watch the badgers in the dark, and I had an itch to see a real, live badger again. I know from visiting the sett in the daytime that the badgers have been busy – it was time to get out and see what they were actually doing at this time of year.
This explains why I was out after dark and why I was carrying the night vision scope. The reason I was wearing ladies’ tights was purely and simply to keep warm. Last night was beautifully clear – the stars of Orion were shining brightly over the wood as I walked up the hill – but it was very cold and frosty with a bitter wind that seemed to be blowing straight from the arctic circle. If you’ve ever sat still in very cold weather then you’ll know how the cold can seep into your bones after a while. And if you’re up a tree watching badgers then you can’t even move around to keep warm. Hence I was wearing as much warm clothing as I could. I got the tights for an impromptu fancy dress outfit a while ago (Superman – they’re thick, blue tights) and I was struck by how warm they were. Despite the possible cross-dressing implications I wore them under my normal trousers, and very effective they were too – warm yet lightweight. This may become a habit…
Arriving at the wood I picked my slowly through the trees. I use a small red LED headtorch, which is just bright enough to see by but is less intrusive than a white light. Badger folklore says that badgers cannot see red light very well and are not as disturbed by it. It also adds a wonderfully other-worldly feeling when walking through a dark wood.
I arrived at the sett at 8.00pm, none too stealthily, I’m afraid. Walking through a winter’s worth of dead leaves and fallen twigs by the light of dim torch without making a noise is pretty much impossible. As I neared the sett I could see the red eyeshine of an animal at the edge of the torchlight – a badger! With no real stealth at all I climbed up my favourite tree to get a good view over the sett. I set up the night vision scope and turned off the red torch.
Now, the last time I used the night vision scope it seemed to cause a reaction in the badgers (see Fieldnotes: 25th July 2009 – First night vision session). Although the infra-red light from the scope is supposedly invisible, the badgers seemed to be spooked by it. Last night, the exact same thing happened. When I looked at the badger through the scope it froze, looked straight at me and bobbed its head up and down. This is the classic sign of a nervous badger trying to scent something that it is suspicious of. After a few seconds it turned around and fled underground.
I am now convinced that badgers can see the infra-red light from my NV scope. Think about it – the badger was not put off by my noisy approach, it was not put off by the red light of my headtorch, nor by the noise of my climbing the tree. It was only when I was sitting quiet and still with my torch turned off that it bolted; and this at the exact moment I shone the infra-led light on it. I’ve spent a lot of hours watching badgers, and the way that this one looked straight at me tells me that it was aware of me, and this could only be due to the infra-red.
I sat for 40 cold minutes to see if the badger reappeared but it didn’t. I could hear the rhythmic scuffling noises of a badger gathering bedding from the other end of the sett, but I didn’t see anything else. It was a little frustrating: there I was, all dressed up, and I seemed to have scared off the only badger in sight. I can confirm that the badgers were out at 8.00pm and that there was bedding being gathered (the east end of the sett seems to be active, based on what I heard and from inspecting the sett in the daylight) but I can’t add much more than this.
The business with the night vision scope was frustrating too. I am sure that the badgers react to the infra-red light, and this makes it much less useful. In fact, they seem more disturbed by the night vision scope than by an ordinary red light. I can use the scope in ‘passive mode’ so that it gathers ambient light rather than illuminating the scene with infra-red, but it isn’t very effective in the darkness of a dark wood.
There is definitely an opportunity for more winter badger watching, but I need to sort out the night vision first…