“I think you’d better wear your waterproof jacket” said my wife as I headed out of the door this evening. It was good advice. It had been a beautiful, warm day but there were ominous banks of black clouds piling up in the west. I hurried up to the wood as it grew darker and darker. The weather forecast was for thunderstorms, and so far it seemed to be accurate.
There’s an old country rhyme about which trees are safe to shelter under during a thunderstorm:
Beware the Oak, it draws the stroke
Beware the Ash, it draws the flash
But under the thorn, you’ll come to no harm
I thought about the rhyme as I walked through a mixed wood of mature oak and ash trees on the top of the tallest hill in the area. I hoped it wasn’t true.
I settled down at the east end of the sett from a spot where the outer holes are visible across a small ravine. The spot isn’t perfect – it’s not possible to see the holes in the undergrowth at the top of the small rise on which the sett lies, and it’s quite far away so you really need binoculars – but it’s the best place to get a view of this end of the sett.
I sat in the gathering gloom, with only the mosquitoes for company. Mosquitoes don’t bother you when you’re in a tree, only when you’re on the ground. I don’t think mosquitoes fly upwards very well. My normal summer badger watching clothes include a thick moleskin shirt, thick cotton trousers and head net. They can get a little warm, but they’re mozzie proof. The trouble is, the little horrors go for exposed areas such as ankles and hands. They even bite through socks and the thin camouflage gloves I usually wear. I regularly wear wellies and thick fleece gloves in summer, not to keep warm but to protect myself from the mosquitoes.*
In a spirit of scientific recording (and having nothing else to do at the time) I photographed a mosquito biting me through my camouflage gloves.
At 8.16 a badger appeared from one of the visible holes. It trotted quickly to the large latrine site and then hurried back underground. By this time it was too dark for photographs. At 8.30 another badger came out of another hole and did the same thing. Ten minutes or so later, both badgers (or different ones) came out together. There was still no real social behaviour: the badgers seemed distracted or on edge somehow.
At that moment the heavens opened with a downpour of epic monsoon proportions. Both badgers disappeared underground, sensible beasts that they are. I had no desire to stay in this sort of rain, so I left too. At least there was no need for stealth – the noise of the rain drowned out any sounds I made. I was feeling a little smug to be wearing my jacket but I still got soaked. The footpath goes through a field of oilseed rape, which is chest-high and flopping over the path. You don’t so much walk along the path as swim through the rape. After the downpour it was like walking through a huge, green, soaking scrubbing-brush. Soaked to the skin from the waist down I plodded home as the thunder rumbled overhead. Never mind – I’m a rough, tough badger watcher and I can cope with getting a little wet. Besides, it’s probably time my badger watching clothes got a good wash…
*In British colonial times, officials in India and Africa were issued with canvas ‘mosquito boots’ for just this purpose. Perhaps I’ll see if they’re still made anywhere.