Mat Bingham explores the home and foraging track of his local badgers.
In the field over the road from our house is a spinney. Wheat and barley surround the small group of trees like a moat, acting as a natural barrier to dog walkers and would-be explorers. I first noticed the foraging trails radiating out across the field from this tiny woodland two years ago. The tracks were only really visible during the spring and summer months when the crops had grown up. The foraging trails are a regular animal thoroughfare; they intersect the country lane to our house and continue across the next field ending at the hawthorn hedge.
The spinney is owned by our neighbour Robert, who knows his land far better than I do, having farmed it all his life. One afternoon over a cup of tea in his kitchen, I quizzed him about the stand of densely packed trees. Surrounded by his sleek and obedient black Labradors, he told me that there had been a badger sett at the centre of the spinney for as long as he could remember.
Several weeks after our cuppa, I walked Skye at dawn and she paused at the badger crossing. Lifting her head, she breathed in the fresh scent from the previous night’s foraging trip. My eyes followed the line of flattened wheat to the spinney and I imagined the badgers scurrying along the trails at night, the cereal crops towering above them, shielded by the darkness, looking for food.
I left Skye at home the next morning and followed one of the animal trails to the spinney, deliberately placing my feet so as not to damage the crops. My legs became increasingly wet as the dew brushed off the wheat as I passed. Spiders’ webs tried to halt my progress. Strung across the track, the silk stretched and finally snapped, binding to my legs as I moved forward. I was soaked when I reached the spinney’s defensive wall of densely intertwined brambles and nettles. Walking clockwise around the perimeter I looked for an opening, a doorway into the badgers’ world, and finally I found it: a small gap in the vegetation. I put my sunglasses on to avoid being poked in the eye and stooped low, pushing my way inside. I could feel prickly heat and tingling on my legs like static electricity – the nettles’ parting shot – and then I was inside the spinney. Immediately, I stumbled as my left leg almost disappeared into one of the sett entrances.
The badgers had been busy: a major earthworks project appeared to have been ongoing in the spinney for decades. In the centre, a dip in the topography had allowed a pond to form, surrounded by fallen trees lying in various states of decay. I counted fifteen entrances to the badgers’ subterranean world. Some of the entrances to the sett looked like they hadn’t been used in some time, while others had piles of earth at their side and evidence of fresh bedding being dragged into the darkness below. Surprisingly there was very little vegetation in the spinney behind the perimeter wall of nettle and thorn. I sat on a log for a time, listening to the ebb and flow of the rustling wheat as a gentle breeze rippled across the field like waves on the sea.
The midges finally found me and formed a cloud above my head, the irritation driving me out of the badgers’ secret place. I jumped over the tunnel entrance I had nearly fallen into earlier, and through the green defensive line in one leap. The spinney was as unwilling to let me leave as it had been to let me in. I stumbled into the field of wheat almost falling over, my embarrassment tempered by the lack of onlookers.
Later that evening in the darkness I stood at my back door and looked over at the faint outline of the trees, thinking about the badgers getting ready for that night’s excursion, unseen and undisturbed.