Caught by the River

Cutlers Rough, Part 3

Mat Bingham | 5th June 2017

Words and pictures: Mat Bingham

It hasn’t rained for weeks. The earth is cracked, set hard like cement. Earthworms lie deep below the surface where it’s damp, too deep for badgers to dig out, so they stay in their sett and wait, sleeping. For the last couple of months I have put food out once a week, but the badgers don’t venture above ground, and it is claimed by the birds. Jays swoop down to snatch peanuts, emboldened by the distracted magpies who are too busy squabbling with each other to notice.

If any of the nuts survive the attention of the birds, they are eaten by a muntjac deer. The camera captures a photograph of her; she has a wound in her right ear long since healed. I regularly hear her barking from the reservoir embankment, announcing her presence to any would-be mate.

It feels like spring is balanced on a knife edge, paused, waiting for the Jetstream to push mild wet weather in from the Atlantic. So I wait also, for the rains to soften the earth, and for the badgers to venture above ground.

Over the winter a large area of the sett has collapsed, the foundations undermined by the ever-evolving tunnels the badgers dig. A new entrance has been excavated further away from the fallen oak tree that provides the structural support for their living quarters. Fresh earth is heaped at the entrance, any worms filtered out by the badgers and eaten. But it appears that all construction activities have been deferred for the moment.

In the woods a musky smell betrays the presence of foxes. Walking under the green canopy it is not long before I pick up an animal trail. There are perfectly preserved canine paw prints pressed into the earth but they are old, made when the soil was still soft. When it was turned over and aerated by the earthworms, not compacted like it is now. The paw prints are of several sizes: more than one fox has been using this nocturnal highway. I follow the tracks and they lead me back to the badger sett where they disappear below ground.

In early May the weather turns and it rains, leaving the air heavy with the pungent scents of spring. Petrichor I believe it is called, Greek for stone and the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods according to mythology. The rains energise the wood. Fresh green shoots compete to be the first to reach the dappled light filtering down through the canopy. Bluebells stand sentry along the animal trails marking the route home. But the badgers are nowhere to be seen.

I return on a damp mild evening, through the security checkpoint and up the stairs to the control room of the water treatment works. The guys on duty call me badgerman. We talk a bit about what the foxes have been doing – a pair of cubs have been seen playing on the access road near the reservoir.

I say my goodbyes, leave the hi-tech world of computer screen control systems, and make my way over to the wood to set up the camera. Later at home that night, in the dark, I am restless, unable to sleep. I drive to the water treatment works early, eager to see if the badgers have been out.

In the woods the first blush of the sun claims the day and dew-covered cobwebs tickle my face as I pick my way through the tangle of grasping brambles. Reaching the camera my hands slip in the dew as I try to prise the housing apart. Applying a bit more force, the catches snap open and I am able to slide the camera out. The battery is still charged so I roll the control wheel under my thumb. Fifty six photographs flicker past, one at a time in quick succession like a Kinetoscope. Foxes flash past but no sign of brock.

Badgers often have more than one home. I know this is an outlier sett, so the badgers won’t have moved far – probably back to the main sett on the other side of the water treatment works. It feels like this is a good time to finish this project, to end my time at Cutlers Rough and move on to something new. It doesn’t feel unfinished to me, it’s just that the badgers of Cutlers Rough have shown me all they are going to.


See more of Mat’s stunning wildlife photography on his website.

Mat Bingham on Caught by the River