Clive has fun...on a badger watch
PUBLISHED: 10:08 21 March 2012 | UPDATED: 19:34 20 February 2013
After his spell at the casino tables last month, Clive Agran has decided to head for the great outdoors on a badger watch
There wasnt much in the way of wildlife in the mean suburban street where I grew up a few sparrows, the occasional pigeon but not much else. A combination of noisy neighbours and Mrs Whittakers cat discouraged anything truly interesting from dropping in on Manor Drive. Our local park, on the other hand, was a veritable oasis that attracted exotic creatures like ducks and squirrels and I consequently spent a great deal of my childhood feeding the former and chasing the latter.
As soon as I was old enough to travel on my own I would hop on the tube to Cockfosters, the final stop on the Piccadilly Line, and step into Arcadia. Instead of concrete, bricks and steel there were trees, fields and hills. I felt more comfortable sitting on the grass surveying the landscape than I ever did on our wobbly sofa watching a hopelessly small-screen TV.
As well as sandwiches and a fizzy drink, I carried three I-Spy books on birds, insects and mammals. Back in those days, spotting a rabbit was a genuine thrill whereas now it most certainly isnt. In the observational downtime, I would read up on all the creatures I hadnt seen including golden eagles, swallowtail butterflies and badgers. Regrettably, the only badgers I ever encountered were in the books of Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter and C S Lewis but for some reason they fired my imagination. Some 30 years later, when I finally swapped the yellow lines of London for the green fields of Sussex, I still hadnt seen a real live badger or, for that matter, a golden eagle or swallowtail butterfly.
Inevitably, the first badger I came across was lying inert by the side of the road. Even though it was dead, I felt an unmistakeable frisson at the sight of its distinctive striped snout. Determined to see one that could both breathe and move, my young daughter and I took to driving around the quiet country lanes behind our village late at night.
Finally we stumbled across one scuttling across the road, followed it for about 50 yards and then watched it scramble through a hedge before hugging each other excitedly. Even though there have been plenty of similar sightings since, spotting a badger is still a thrill.
And thats why Ive come to Rusper Village Hall to meet David Plummer, a man who knows everything you ever wanted to know about badgers. Its a beautiful spring evening and just about perfect for badger watching but a family of four, who said they were coming, have apparently pulled out at the last minute, which leaves just Danny, a keen amateur wildlife enthusiast, and me to follow David in a short motor convoy to a secret destination.
Ordinarily David delivers his background briefing in the village hall but its such a fine evening that he instead gives it to us as we stroll through a deciduous ancient wood he bought several years ago that is carpeted in bluebells. Theyre 10 days early, according to David. We, too, are early because with badgers you can never be late. Last night they emerged at 7.36. The precision in this timing, the fact that were treading very gently and whispering to one another reinforces the feeling of an almost military-style operation.
When we first met, David advised me to wear my jacket inside out so as to eliminate any rustling noise, a trick no doubt the SAS employ when conducting reconnaissance behind enemy lines. The badgers arent our enemy, of course, but we, sadly, have come to be theirs now that their erstwhile predators bears, wolves, lynx and eagles have disappeared. The appalling sport of badger-baiting is simply bewildering. How can human beings be so unspeakably cruel?
David explains the badgers lifecycle, diet and behaviour, including intimate details of its sex life and toilet arrangements. They are enormously powerful, find worms delicious and are blessed with a sense of smell 800 times stronger than ours. Mind you, would you want such a powerful sense of smell when theres a latrine right outside your front door? I hope theyre enjoying the whiff of bluebells and wonder if its a good or bad thing that I showered this afternoon after a round of golf at nearby Mannings Heath. Palmolive soap smells okay to me but badgers might hate it. I neednt worry too much as theres an easterly breeze wafting gently through the wood and well be downwind.
David gives us our final instructions basically dont move, make a noise or lean back on the stools before we climb some steps and take our seats on an elevated platform some 20 feet or so above the ground. Now it feels less like a military operation and more like a theatrical performance with the three of us in the dress circle. The sett is a huge mound of earth with numerous holes. Inside it, we hope, is an all-star cast of badgers waiting for their cue to come on stage.
As 7.36 comes and goes and after half-an-hour of total inactivity, at least one of us is beginning to wonder whether, indeed, the show must go on. Possibly sensing unrest in the audience, a warm-up act enters stage right. Its Mr Fox who proceeds to entertain us by nonchalantly strolling around, sniffing the air and eating quite a few of the peanuts David has scattered about.
In the middle of the foxs performance, a black and white striped face appears at one of the holes, sniffs the air and disappears. Shortly afterwards, the same black and white striped face pops out of another hole and then another hole. What I previously imagined was going to be a variation on A Midsummer Nights Dream is now beginning to more closely resemble a Brian Rix farce. Its wonderfully compelling but, because the performers are so nervous and temperamental, you darent move a muscle, let alone laugh or clap.
Finally the badger emerges from the sett and The Fox and Badger Show gets underway with the two principals happily scratching about and munching nuts. Tree trunks are casually brushed aside by the badger to reach nuts hidden beneath them. Although they come pretty close together, neither animal seems terribly concerned at the presence of the other until, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the badger seems to lose patience with the fox gobbling its food and chases its co-star right off the stage. The latter sneaks back but is again pursued by the indignant badger who shows a surprising turn of paw and nearly catches its furry adversary. The mistake the fox made, we later learn, was to go upwind of the badger. A badgers eyesight is so poor that he wouldnt have seen the fox.
Night is closing in at the commencement of Act Two and David turns on a red spotlight so that we can better see the actors and the action. Because of where it belongs in the spectrum, the light cannot be seen by the animals. Even when cross, they apparently dont see red. But we can see them very much more clearly now.
The plot then takes another surprising twist when a different fox appears on the scene and starts to eat the peanuts. It, too, eventually is seen off and the show ends when, presumably having had its fill of nuts, the triumphant badger wanders nonchalantly away.
The audience rise to their feet as one, more to stretch their numb limbs as to show their appreciation of the performance, and clamber down from their lofty perch. Only after a couple of hundred yards do we speak, and then only quietly. Surprisingly David, a veteran of countless badger watches, appears to be as excited as we are. Ive never seen a badger chase a fox like that before, he whispers.
Wow, not only a great show but a world premiere to boot