Category Archives: Badgers

Badger hole in Newbridge Wood

Badger holeI’m lighting up badger setts with a two flash setup – the key light on a lighting stand or bolted to a tree to splash light from the side, and a flash on the camera to put detail in the shadows. However, to get a nighttime look, perhaps it’s better to just use the one key light as above, leaving the shadows black and featureless.

I could do with more cooperation from the badgers.

Lighting a badger sett

I have spent some time recently working on a new approach to photographing badgers. With a flashgun on the camera, the lighting is boring, creates harsh shadows, and makes elements closer to the camera than the subject, such as the ground or vegetation, unpleasantly bright or even burnt out.

My new approach is to use off-camera flash, and multiple flashes. This photograph is lit by a flashgun attached to a tree branch, snooted to limit the spread of light, and a flashgun on the camera to light the shadows created by the key light. Having balanced the two light sources satisfactorily, the next problem was the lack of control over where the badgers would emerge. The only solution is concentrated observation at the same sett in order to anticipate the behaviour of the animals.

August 24th, 1997

The long spell of hot, sultry weather finally broke with two days of rain, but it was dry and pleasantly cool as I set off down the track from the village. I suppose that the summer has broken as well, as I noticed that old, brown foliage was beginning to predominate over the green in the hedgerows and verges.

The sun shone through a gap in the clouds just before it set, and as I crossed the swing bridge, it dropped below the horizon and lit up the underneath of the clouds covering the rest of the sky. The pink light fell everywhere, creating an unearthly colour cast which might be everyday on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.

I hurried along the river bank, as I felt that the badgers would soon be up, and was startled by a heron flying off from the water’s edge beside me with a harsh croak. Further on, a dragonfly kept me company, flying beside me as if on escort duty until the path skirted the trees where Quesse Wood came down to the river.

I crossed the water meadow and entered the gloomy wood. The undergrowth was already dying down, and I easily moved along the path to the mouth of the valley and crossed the stream, climbing the bank on the other side. I then made my way silently along the wood until I was directly opposite the sett, standing beside two badger holes which are never used and were probably the result of young badgers practicing their home building skills before departing their home sett.

With the naked eye, I could see nothing of the holes and mounds of earth on the bank opposite, but they were revealed clearly by the binoculars. I settled down for a long wait, as the badgers now have a long night in which to hunt, and can indulge in a lie-in if they feel like it. After some time, relieved only by occasional bird song and a train for Liverpool, I heard, just above the threshold of gossamer sound that my eardrums could detect, a swish-swish sound coming from the mouth of the valley.

I thought of a night a long time ago when I heard a similar sound. I slipped down from my tree and with infinite care, slowly approached the source of the sound in almost pitch darkness, feeling the ground for sticks before putting weight down on each step, eyes and ears collecting each scrap of light and sound, mind interpreting them into a badger quartering the bottom of the valley for earthworms and grubs. Suddenly the eye detected an irregular area of white which moved in an un-badger-like manner, just as the ear had no trouble hearing a loud harrumph! as the cow accompanied me in mutual awareness.

Not so, tonight. There were no cattle in the fields on either side of the wood, and there was a mini-sett on the slope above the mouth of the valley. It was definitely a badger, down among the vegetation on the valley floor. I scanned the whole area with the binoculars, but despite the dying down of the vegetation, there was still too much of it for me to see the source of the noise.

I could put a picture to the noise. Badgers sleep in a nest chamber lined with dry grass and other vegetation, and periodically, they renew their bedding. On such a night, they go a little way from the sett, scrape a bundle of fresh bedding together and, tucking it between their chin and front legs, hobble backwards to the hole and drag it down. The swish-swish died away, and the badger must have made it back to the hole. Over a period of about ten minutes, I heard the badger make three more bedding collections, and then the sound was replaced by more general movement sounds, small twig snappings and leaf scrapings, but I had difficulty keeping track of the direction and distance of the animal.

About five yards in front of me was a large sycamore tree. Its upper trunk and branches could be seen against the still luminescent western sky, but to the naked eye, its lower trunk could hardly be distinguished in the darkness. Suddenly a small patch of white appeared beside its base, and I put the binoculars to my eyes immediately, as an adult badger ambled across in front of me to the cubs hole where it sniffed the entrance and then gazed at me. Seeing nothing significant, he slowly climbed the slope, passing within two yards of where I stood motionless and almost breathless. Next to the barbed wire, he stopped and looked around, a black silhouette just distinguishable from the dark grey sky behind, and then slipped out into the field.

SunsetI climbed the slope as quietly as I could, but when I got to the top and scanned the field, he was gone. I walked across a couple of fields to the road, checking the shadows in the grass with the binoculars and watching the way a car’s headlights lit the trees and hedgerows as it went by. As I passed the Old Mill, I thought of the original owner of Quesse Wood, Old Man Guntripp, who was murdered there, and walked on in the darkness back to the river and home.

August 13th, 1997

After a week of sweltering weather, it rained this morning and as we set off for the badger sett, the evening was pleasantly cool, though not cool enough to deter the boys who were jumping into the river from the swing bridge as we crossed.

A movement on the bank beside the road caught Fran’s eye, and she called me to look. A young wren was quartering the ground in swift, jerky movements, and as we watched, it seemed that it could not yet fly, so tiny was it and so firmly engaged with the earth it searched. Eventually, I could not resist climbing the bank towards it, but when I came near, it zoomed off with scornful efficiency.

Where the road curved through the wood, we stopped in order to determine which way the air was drifting, but it was very still – not good for watching badgers undetected. We clambered over the barbed wire into the wood and slithered down the bank onto the muddy cattle track leading along the floor of the valley towards its mouth. After checking ahead with the binoculars through the vegetation that no badgers were about yet, we crept and slipped along the track until we were opposite the sett, and settled down beside a couple of trees.

I knew that there were a few holes nearer the valley mouth, obscured from us by vegetation, grouped around the base of a large sycamore tree, from which a bare path led across the bank to the hole directly in front of us. This had a generous mound of excavated earth in front of it, topped with debris showing recent activity, and the path dropped down to the valley floor where a dead tree lay across the boggy ground and tiny stream which existed only because of the rain this morning.

The stream seemed the main activity in the wood. As the light faded, there was little bird song apart from the occasional collared dove with its complacent coo-cooing and strangely premature end to the phrase. A heron flew over with a harsh cry once, but all the time the six inch wide rivulet dribbled along, a silver gash in the bog, reflecting the dying light in the sky.

StreamThe usually non-existent trickle of water in front of me had created the wood, of course. The yellow mound of excavated soil from the badger hole showed the usual sandy subsoil in this area, sand ground down from the mountains of Wales, or maybe the Peak District, during the last ice age.

A possible badger’s head at the entrance to the hole resolved itself into a small clump of grass – strange how objects seen in good light can magically change in apparent nature, if only for a moment, in the twilight.

It was glaciers which had changed solid rock into sand and carried it here, locked in the ice. When the ice melted, the Cheshire plain would have been truly flat, but ready to be colonized by shrubs and trees and carved by rivers and streams – and by little trickles of water like that in front of me.


A bat flickered up and down the valley in the gloom.

While the Cheshire plain was covered by a great forest, this little stream appeared now and then with the rain, and carried a little bit more soil towards the river, and over the course of thousands of years, what was a furrow in the ground gradually assumed a shape and size worthy to be called a valley. Badgers and foxes, even with a vast forest to choose from, would have started to dig their tunnels in its sloping sides – so much easier than in level ground.

I was standing on the tree root, and my feet were beginning to hurt from the awkward pose held motionless for so long. I slowly rearranged my stance to a more comfortable angle.

In the last few moments of geological time, people have populated the forest and removed it, wanting to grow grass for their cattle, or other crops on the flat plain. Everywhere except the valleys, created by the rivers, streams – and trickles of water. These were too awkward for agriculture, and have been left as ribbons of woodland, havens for foxes, badgers, birds and bats, and a myriad other creatures.

Suddenly, across the valley a dim clump of grass became the head of a badger, scratching himself outside one of the holes further down the valley, only just recognizable through the intervening branches and vegetation. After a while, he cautiously ventured along the path into full view and went down the hole in front of me. A few minutes later, two cubs came bouncing down the same path, biting each others tails in absolute silence, and met the adult reemerging from the hole. One moment they were there, then they were claimed by the darkness as they set off up the bank on their night’s hunting.

We stumbled over mud to the mouth of the valley and then crossed the grassy flood plain of the stream which our little trickle of water joins. In the gloaming, we walked back and found that the boys were still dropping from the bridge into the river, and we remembered how warm water is in the dark when the sun has gone down.

June 1st, 1997

It’s been a sweltering hot day. This evening, I gave up on my landscape gardening with concrete, mortar and shovel, and set off for the badger sett across the river. The sun glared in my eyes and sweat trickled down my back as I walked along the track from the village, but it was pleasantly cool where it dropped towards the river through a narrow belt of trees.

As I crossed the bridge, the pair of swans which had nested in a pool beside the river were feeding at the water’s edge with their five cygnets, and house martins were zooming about collecting insects.

I walked along the river bank, climbed the style and crossed the meadow to the edge of the wood, looking for the blue haze under the trees as I approached the fence, but there was none. As I crossed the barbed wire, I saw that the blue bells had all gone to seed – a year gone by without seeing Quesse Wood at its best! I felt a pang of disappointment, like going to a museum to see a work of art only to find that the exhibition had been withdrawn and replaced by another of no interest. Never mind, it will be back again next year …

I crossed the boggy ground at the mouth of the valley and as I climbed the bank at the far side, a tawny owl gave a warning call – an early riser as the sun was still well above the horizon, brilliant sunbeams dappling the trees and ground foliage, in which uncountable numbers of insects danced. I quietly made my way along the side of the valley until I was opposite the badger sett, and settled down to examine it closely with the binoculars. I could see the hole from which the badgers always emerged first last year, but it did not seem very well used, and I was surprised by how high the vegetation was, making it difficult to see many of the other holes.

I stood looking at the familiar signs of badger activity around me – flattened vegetation, small holes in the earth where edible morsels had been pursued and extracted – and listening to the bird song. Not a sound from the tawny owls, but plenty from blackbird and robin, collared dove and magpie. After a while, I heard the calls announcing a ground predator, at which I used to look around for a fox, but I have so seldom seen the object of the bird’s alarm that I took little notice. Then into the field of view of my binoculars stepped two such objects.

They seemed like father and son, and while the younger man carried on walking along the woodland edge, the other crossed the barbed wire fence and examined the upper holes of the badger sett. He had on a cloth cap, carried a long stick, and had an appearance, a manner of movement, a body language which expressed ownership. I looked at his lined face through the binoculars and could not say that I recognized him, but I thought of a day about twenty years ago when I met the farmer who owned the next wood along, and talked to him about the badgers that lived in it.

On that day, the farmer talked to me about the wood in a most friendly way, and told me that I could watch the badgers there whenever I liked. Two weeks later, I was crossing the field towards the wood when I saw him on a tractor, and walked in his direction to greet him. He saw me coming, and immediately started towards me, raving about trespass in highly agricultural language. By the time that we were close enough for him to recognize me and for me to get a word in edgewise, he had said too much to retract, and my reminder of our previous meeting was met only by a warning to stay off his land or else! He was holding a thumb bloodied by an accident with his machinery, thus accounting for his ill temper, so I did not hold it against him, and merely made sure that when I went to watch the badgers in his wood, I was myself unobserved.

He finished his examination of the sett, re-crossed the barbed wire and set off across the potato field. I waited for a while, but there would be no badgers coming from the sett for a long while after such a disturbance, so I quietly made my way back down to the river. As I walked back along the river bank, the tawny owls started hooting to each other from the darkening wood above me.