Thanks very much to everyone who has commented on the badgers and infra-red debate. I’m sorry I haven’t had the time to reply to you individually, but your comments really are appreciated.
To tell the truth, I’ve been busy lately with work, social events and general pater familias stuff. In particular, I’ve been busy knocking my poor neglected vegetable garden into shape. Let me be more specific – I’ve been dashing out and working in the garden in between the freezing downpours, only to dash indoors again when the next one comes along. It may officially be spring, but we’ve had a lot of cold, nasty, squally weather lately. But tonight I braved the weather to go to the badger sett, and I’m pleased that I did – I had a great experience to kick off the badger watching season.
I arrived at the wood at about 8.20pm, by which time it was getting dark. The wet weather has turned the ploughed fields into sticky, sucking mud. I started the walk looking like a dapper country gent. I entered the wood looking like a First World War soldier returning from a gruelling stint in the trenches. Never mind, it’s still nice to get outdoors.
Regular readers will know that I prefer, when possible, to watch badgers from a tree. It gets you above them and you get a better view without having to worry as much about scent or badgers blundering into you. To be honest, though, climbing a tree in the dark while wearing muddy wellies is a complete pain, so I elected to sit at the base a tree, facing the sett with the wind in my face so my scent wouldn’t be carried to the badgers.
My plan was to try to observe the badgers using the night vision (NV) scope, both in passive mode and with infra-red, and see if there was any pattern to their responses. At 8.50pm I heard the unmistakable sound of scratching from the sett that meant that a badger was above ground. There was still a little light, so I was able to use the NV scope without the infra-red. There, by the sett, was a badger. Success! A moment later it ambled off. So far, so inconclusive. It may have been disturbed by the NV scope, it may have just been a badger with things to do. I sat and waited.
About 10 minutes later there was a scuffling noise from the sett. I raised the scope to see what it was.
(At this point, I should confess that I have a strange and irrational fantasy fear about using the NV scope. I worry that one day I’ll be sitting happily in a dark but otherwise peaceful wood. I raise the scope to my eye, and there, sitting no more than 10 feet away, is a tiger – of which I was previously blissfully unaware. It’s wholly irrational, I know, but sitting alone in a dark wood does strange things to your mind after a while. Once the thought entered my mind I couldn’t seem to get rid of it.)
In this case, I raised the scope to see three badgers running full pelt directly towards me. You have to understand that I’m used to watching badgers from a tree, not from the ground. I’m not used to seeing badgers from this angle – full frontal, face to face and eye to eye – let alone three of them, nose to tail and running full speed at me. It was a new experience, and a very impressive one.
At the last moment, just when I thought the badgers would run straight into me, they stopped. They were no more than three feet away and clearly visible in the twilight. I hardly dared to breathe. Two of the badgers started having sex right in front of me (what is it with me, badgers and sex!?), while the third starting sniffing towards my wellies. If I had leaned forward I could have tickled any one of them behind the ears. After 30 heart-stopping seconds they sensed my presence somehow and dashed off towards the sett, except one brave fellow who came back to within a few feet of me and circled round, sniffing, before running off.
What a fantastic experience! I think this is the closest I’ve ever been to a live badger, and it was absolutely breathtaking. In one way I had broken my cardinal rule of badger watching – I had let the badgers become aware of my presence. These badgers are absolutely wild and unaccustomed to humans, and I’ve taken pains to keep them this way. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite all my scientific theorising, I still find the sight of badgers to be both thrilling and compelling. I’ve said it before, there is something about an encounter with badgers that has an effect on people, and this was a very close encounter. It was a great way to start the badger watching year.
And the effect of the NV scope on the badgers? The scope was on (in passive mode) during the whole encounter and the badgers showed no signs of noticing me until the very last moment, to the extent of returning to check me out more closely. This was nothing like the fear I’ve observed when using the infra-red at a far greater distance, which suggests that the scope itself doesn’t bother them. I’ll need to experiment further to see if the infra-red provokes any consistent responses. After my close encounter I didn’t have the heart to risk disturbing the badgers any more tonight, and I quietly left them to go about their business.