Malcolm D. Welshman visits the sett of an enthralling family drama.
ABALL of grey fur shot out of the holly thicket, bounced down the bank and careered into my ankles. Shaken, the two badger cubs sprang apart from their tussle. Piggy black eyes blinked at me, puzzled. Moist grey nostrils quivered, uncertain.
At the top of the bank a striped black and white head appeared and there was a warning yelp.
Alerted by their mother’s call, the youngsters squeaked in alarm and bolted back to the safety of their sett.
I’d discovered that sett on a hike through the New Forest in June the previous year, hidden in the dappled fringes of woodland, where beech and hawthorn had unfurled their mantles of soft green.
Here spring fever had been at its highest pitch. Blackbirds bustled in the hedgerows; blue tits darted from bud to bud. A cuckoo’s strident tones rang out across the pocketsized fields, emerald fresh with new grass.
A path, muddy, black and pitted by countless hooves, wound up a steep bank. Below it was scattered a mound of freshly dug rich red soil which tumbled from a gaping hole.
Using the exposed roots of an ancient beech, I levered myself up to peer down into that hole, dark and dank – the entrance to a badger’s sett.
I revisited the area one evening in May. The woods were now a misty blur of bluebells and the beeches a lacy canopy of green.
I climbed into the crook of a beech bough which overhung the bank. It gave me a bird’s-eye view of the sett, safe from noses scenting danger.
As the sun dipped below the tree line in a blaze of orange, a sylph-like form
– a roe buck – slipped into the field and began to graze in the gathering grey.
A blackbird zoomed into the holly thicket below me, clackering with alarm, and three woodpigeons crashed in to roost. Then, having spotted me, they whirled away in a frenzy of flapping wings.
I fixed my eyes on the sett’s darkening entrance. It suddenly filled with a blur of black and white.
A badger stood there motionless, listening. Quietly he slipped out and sniffed the air, paw raised.
A smaller, slimmer badger appeared behind him. His mate. They touched noses and purred.
Then the sow rolled over and, with both front paws, gave her belly a hearty scratch, lips curled back in a blissful grin.
It was on my second visit that month when those cubs bumped into me: the sow’s offspring. There were four in all.
During the long, golden summer evenings, they played, fought and chased each other. Up and down the bank they romped.
The gnarled grey tangle
of beech roots was worn smooth where they played in a boisterous tumult of squeals and squeaks, while the grass at the edge of the field beyond the woods was flattened by their play.
By the end of the summer I knew it would be difficult to distinguish the cubs from their parents. Especially when other badgers came to visit, as they often do. You can get up to eight additional badgers around one sett.
I counted seven on a badger watch in late August. Amongst them was an obvious newcomer.
She was slight of build with a sandy-brown tint to her coarse coat. The cubs gave her a friendly sniff, but their mother sent her packing with a brusque growl and the snap of sharp, white teeth.
My final watch of the year saw me shivering one crisp September evening, while the sow, now free from her pestering brood, shunted large bundles of dried grass and leaves as fresh bedding for the winter months.
It was well into the following spring before I had a chance to revisit the sett.
That afternoon, I had cycled down from the New Forest moors through a sweep of purple heather, shimmering in amber haze.
As I freewheeled into the woods, I noticed a grey mound slumped at the side of the road. I hammered on the brakes, swerved to a halt and jumped off my bike. It was a badger. The mother of last year.
I still went on to visit the sett. But as the sky turned to an inky blue and the birds grew quiet in their roosts, the bank below the beech tree remained deserted.
Forlornly, I jumped down. As I landed, there was a grunt from behind a thicket of holly.
I froze, still crouched. Then came the familiar sound of scratching.
I crept forward and peered through the leaves. There was a new entrance.
A face stared out. It was sandy coloured. The visiting sow of last year.
She padded out and turned to softly purr. A small striped face appeared nervously at her side, joined moments later by another.
Proudly, the sow began to lick and groom her tiny offspring. Then a third cub bounded out, tripped and sprawled next to her.
It was smaller than the other two, its coat yellowflecked, and a spitting image of Mum.
The new generation of badgers was now complete.
A youngster pops its head out, eager to try this new world.
As the cubs grew they were harder to spot amongst visitors.
The New Forest at its most enchanting and full of wildlife.
A bolder badger with an eye on nature’s bounty.