Pho­tog­ra­pher Lau­rie Camp­bell is now an hon­orary sett mem­ber

For over 45 years pho­tog­ra­pher Lau­rie Camp­bell has used field­craft to get close to bad­gers in many habi­tats, in­clud­ing his own home!

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Anna Levin Pho­tos Lau­rie Camp­bell

We’re tak­ing a short­cut through dark­en­ing woods to the still-shin­ing river, wad­ing down through wild gar­lic, which scents the evening air. Be­ing out and about with wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher Lau­rie Camp­bell in­volves tak­ing the road less trav­elled. He doesn’t rush from A to B: you’d miss too much along the way. He stops sud­denly to pick up a bad­ger hair – it’s coarse, with a black band and white tip – and crouches to study the prints in the soft mud. There’s a wide pad and a straight row of five for­ward-fac­ing toes… def­i­nitely bad­ger.

Lau­rie has known and watched bad­gers here since child­hood. It feels like he can sense their pres­ence, he’s so alert to signs that most of us would stride past. As a school­boy he would set out alone from his home in Ber­wick-upon-Tweed, fol­low­ing the river for miles, ex­plor­ing and ob­serv­ing. One evening he dis­cov­ered a bad­ger sett on a wooded slope above the river and was drawn to a sense of the wild so close to home.

Here were large, wild mam­mals go­ing about their bustling lives, yet hid­den from most of the peo­ple around who wouldn’t have walked so far, nor waited so long to see them. Al­ready a keen pho­tog­ra­pher, Lau­rie de­cided to watch the sett in­ten­sively and find ways to doc­u­ment what he ob­served. And so a life­long ad­ven­ture in bad­ger watch­ing be­gan.

The first step was to get above them – a tip he had gleaned from study­ing David Stephen’s sem­i­nal A Guide to Watch­ingWild Life, pub­lished in the 1960s. “It was like a Bi­ble for me,” says Lau­rie. He would ar­rive be­fore sun­set and lie silently along a branch of a large elm, later build­ing and wa­ter­proof­ing a small hide in the tree. “A real ad­ven­ture den up a tree!” re­calls Lau­rie. “It was ex­cit­ing to be on my own in places I’d never been with my fam­ily – in the wild.”

Watch­ing bad­gers meant watch­ing the night and learn­ing to be alone in the dark­ness. Lau­rie soon dis­cov­ered that dark­ness brings an in­nate edgi­ness that can be a gift to a nat­u­ral­ist, acutely sharp­en­ing the senses and ren­der­ing the watcher alert and aware. He saw that hu­man foot­paths be­longed to foxes and roe deer in the night, and found long-eared owls over­win­ter­ing in a blackthorn thicket. One night he was star­tled to hear loud sighs close by – it turned out to be grey seals, com­ing far up the Tweed in search of salmon, their breath car­ry­ing on the still night air.

Watch­ing bad­gers meant watch­ing the night. Dark­ness can be a gift to a nat­u­ral­ist.

Trial and er­ror

From his elm tree perch, Lau­rie learnt how to watch, pho­to­graph and un­der­stand bad­gers, by trial and er­ror and keen ob­ser­va­tion. Once he ac­ci­den­tally left his cam­era bag on the path be­fore he climbed the tree an hour be­fore sun­set. When a bad­ger came along, snuf­fled it and shot off into the un­der­growth, he re­alised how acute a bad­ger’s sense of

smell is. He no­ticed how they were edgier, and so harder to pho­to­graph, on windy nights when their sense of smell and hear­ing would be less re­li­able, and on bright, moon­lit nights when they felt more vul­ner­a­ble.

When the cre­ation of the Ber­wick-up­onTweed by­pass threat­ened to slice through the woods of his bad­ger beat, Lau­rie took a day off school and teamed up with a local nat­u­ral­ist to meet with the build­ing con­trac­tors. “We must have seemed an odd pair – a school boy and an oc­to­ge­nar­ian,” says Lau­rie. “But we got the un­der­pass we asked for – a ba­sic tun­nel be­neath the A1 to al­low the bad­gers to con­tinue on their for­ag­ing route.”

Lau­rie went on to be­come one of Scot­land’s first full-time pro­fes­sional nat­u­ral-his­tory pho­tog­ra­phers, and bad­gers have been a con­stant fo­cus of his work, and of evening ex­plo­rations, ever since. As a writer, I’ve been col­lab­o­rat­ing with Lau­rie for some years now and bad­gers al­ways seem to crop up in the story, what­ever else we’re work­ing on.

Ded­i­cated ap­proach

Once we met at Ed­in­burgh Zoo, where Lau­rie had worked as a keeper when he left school. He led me straight past the penguins to the top of Corstor­phine Hill, where an ex­ten­sive bad­ger sett sprawls be­neath beech trees, the red earth com­pacted and smoothed around the wide en­trances. When work­ing here, Lau­rie had rigged up a hide on stilts 6m above this sett, of­ten sleep­ing in his work­place to be ready to pho­to­graph the bad­gers af­ter sun­set.

Then at Ai­gas Field Cen­tre in the High­lands, where Lau­rie has taught pho­tog­ra­phy for more than a decade, we were wait­ing in a hide at mid­night hop­ing to glimpse a pine marten when a white stripe ap­peared in the dark woods. A bad­ger came trundling along, snuf­fling around the peanuts that Lau­rie had scat­tered ear­lier. I held my breath to keep silent while it scoffed them with a loud noise.

Even on the wild cliffs at St Abbs, a dra­matic spot be­tween Ed­in­burgh and Ber­wick-up­onTweed that is famed for its seabird colonies, Lau­rie pointed out a large pit of turned soil and ripped turf within an area of herb-rich grass­land. “It looked ro­ta­vated,” he re­mem­bers now. “You could have seen from space that bad­gers had been at it!” They had been dig­ging for a bad­ger del­i­cacy: pignuts. These nutty tu­bers are formed by a small wild­flower of the same name in the um­bel­lifer fam­ily.

Lau­rie has spent his work­ing life ‘com­mut­ing’ through Scot­land be­tween his

Ber­wick­shire home and the High­lands and Is­lands, hold­ing to a mantra of “look­ing closer not trav­el­ling fur­ther” and reap­ing the re­wards of an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of his home patch. Close by his vil­lage he watched over the years a bad­ger sett that grew and mor­phed and de­vel­oped as gen­er­a­tions of bad­gers dug and shaped the land­scape with their slopes and tun­nels, paths and spoil heaps. Lau­rie made just one ex­cep­tion to his close-to-home rule. In 1994, he spent two months in the Patag­o­nian An­des with wildlife film-maker Hugh Miles in search of pumas. Hugh had al­ready de­voted many months to get­ting a fe­male puma used to his pres­ence. When Lau­rie ar­rived, he had to spend six weeks sit­ting for hours each day un­til she ac­cepted him. It was a mas­ter­class in ha­bit­u­at­ing wild an­i­mals. “It was like be­ing let into a big se­cret,” Lau­rie says. “There was no other way. We ex­per­i­mented with

When Lau­rie was scent-marked by a bad­ger, he con­sid­ered it one of the high­est ac­co­lades of his ca­reer.

hides, but this cat wasn’t fooled for a sec­ond. For us to fol­low and pho­to­graph her safely, she had to know we were there and be happy with our pres­ence at a re­spect­ful dis­tance.”

Back home in Ber­wick­shire, Lau­rie was com­mis­sioned to il­lus­trate a book on bad­gers, and de­cided to fol­low one fam­ily over a year, and to put into prac­tice the con­cepts he had learnt in Chile. He ded­i­cated time to silently watch­ing and wait­ing, some dis­tance from the large, rambling sett, lean­ing against a big old larch tree: “a dry seat and a back­rest”.

Gain­ing ac­cep­tance

Lau­rie came to recog­nise in­di­vid­u­als among the clan, and in time he gained their trust and they ac­cepted his quiet pres­ence. When he was scent-marked by a bad­ger one night, he con­sid­ered it one of the high­est ac­co­lades of his ca­reer: bad­gers usu­ally only do that to other bad­gers so that the group shares a com­mon scent. He was ac­cepted.

Five cubs were born that year and they had never known the woods with­out Lau­rie’s pres­ence. They came closer un­til one was ly­ing in his lap snuf­fling peanuts from his hand while he took macro pho­tographs of its fur. He watched them grow and de­velop and came to recog­nise their in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters.

“As they put on lay­ers of fat, the young­sters looked more like adults and it be­came harder to tell them apart,” Lau­rie says. “But I could still iden­tify them by their na­tures. The one that had been the small­est was snap­pier – you had to watch your fin­gers if giv­ing tit­bits. A larger one was the gen­tlest. I made sure that the bad­gers never be­came de­pen­dent on my food. It was al­ways just lit­tle treats to tempt them and to help form a bond.”

When Lau­rie’s young son told a teacher that he’d been sit­ting in a tent at the week­end feed­ing honey sand­wiches to five young bad­gers, he was told off for mak­ing it up. But it was true. Bad­gers had be­come part of fam­ily life. The peanuts and pig food used to tempt them were part of the Camp­bell shop­ping list.

When the fam­ily moved to their cur­rent home 21 years ago, they soon no­ticed signs of bad­gers vis­it­ing the gar­den: claw marks on the bird feed­ers that were filled with sun­flower seeds; scuf­fles at night. Keen to pho­to­graph an­other as­pect of bad­gers’ lives, Lau­rie en­cour­aged their pres­ence in the gar­den, leav­ing food scraps out in a dish with a rock on top that they could nudge off.

Some of these noc­tur­nal vis­i­tors could be iden­ti­fied by their dis­tinc­tive mark­ings left from ter­ri­to­rial fights with other bad­gers. “It was a bit like do­ing photo-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Moray Firth’s bot­tlenose dol­phins from their scars,” says Lau­rie, re­fer­ring to an­other of his favourite pho­to­graphic sub­jects. Over time he has lured the bad­gers closer, leav­ing the lights on in his home and then the win­dows open un­til they’re ac­cus­tomed to the ac­tiv­i­ties of the hu­man res­i­dents and sounds of the cam­era.

For much of his life, Lau­rie’s night­watch­ing de­lighted the nat­u­ral­ist in him but frus­trated the pho­tog­ra­pher, so many of his early ex­pe­ri­ences were im­pos­si­ble to cap­ture in such mar­ginal light­ing with­out us­ing flash. Now ad­vances in dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, such

“You al­ways see more than you can pho­to­graph, and that keeps me in­ter­ested.”

as far more sen­si­tive sen­sors, have brought new pos­si­bil­i­ties. Rein­vig­o­rated by tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­ity at last catch­ing up with his field­craft, Lau­rie is ex­plor­ing anew the world he has al­ways known: the nat­u­ral his­tory of the night.

This means re­turn­ing to bad­gers, pho­tograph­ing be­hav­iour he has pre­vi­ously wit­nessed but not cap­tured, as well as other denizens of the dark­ness such as bats, foxes, owls and in­ver­te­brates. He is also ex­plor­ing the wider con­text of the night-time world – its land­scape and skyscapes, and has a grow­ing in­ter­est in as­tropho­tog­ra­phy.

Pho­tog­ra­phy wish-list

Lau­rie keeps a ‘wish list’ in his mind’s eye, which frus­trates and mo­ti­vates him in equal mea­sure. “I’ve been pho­tograph­ing bad­gers for over 40 years,” he says. “But you al­ways see more than you can pho­to­graph, and that keeps me in­ter­ested. When I saw ev­i­dence of bad­gers tak­ing salmon out of a stream, I got a new en­ergy. That’s a pho­to­graph I haven’t seen yet.”

Head­ing home af­ter an evening’s ex­plo­rations, we make our way back through the woods. Out of nowhere, two young bad­ger cubs come bowl­ing through the un­der­growth, round and soft like fluffy grey foot­balls. They star­tle as they see us, then bound away. We con­tinue on but a move­ment ahead stops us in our tracks. A bad­ger is upright at the en­trance to its sett, its nose in the air. It’s ut­terly still, and so are we. As qui­etly as we can we step away, lifting our feet and plac­ing them down. The sky has dark­ened to deep in­digo by the time we reach the car.

As we drive back to the Camp­bell’s home, Lau­rie points out the sites of other bad­ger setts in the area, knowl­edge he’s ac­cu­mu­lated through a life­time of watch­ing. Within 3-6km of the vil­lage, he knows of two dozen setts, but there will be more. It’s per­fect habi­tat here, and de­spite con­stant road ca­su­al­ties, bad­ger numbers are grow­ing. Lau­rie’s aware that his peace­ful work takes place in the wider con­text of Eng­land’s bad­ger cull. “I can’t imag­ine how I’d feel if it hap­pened here,” he says. “And I feel the sit­u­a­tion’s get­ting more en­trenched."

We reach the house and set­tle at Lau­rie’s com­puter to look over the evening’s pho­tographs. There’s a shuf­fling noise out­side and we glance up. Through the glass door be­tween Lau­rie’s of­fice and the gar­den, a long black-and-white face is look­ing in at us.

FIND OUT MORE

Ge­orge McGavin joins Lau­rie Camp­bell to stake out his bad­gers for The One Show, which airs week­days at 7pm. Check Radio Times for de­tails.

Above: muddy-nosed bad­gers ap­pear at the en­trance of a wood­land sett in the spring­time, sur­rounded by flow­er­ing wild gar­lic.

One of Lau­rie's early black and white pho­tos from over 40 years ago.

Left: Lau­rie learnt early on – from David Stephen’s A Guide to Watch­ingWild Life – that the best way to ob­serve and pho­to­graph a bad­ger sett is by look­ing down on it. Above: when start­ing out as a pho­tog­ra­pher in the early 1970s, Lau­rie built his own bad­ger-watch­ing hide high in an elm tree over­look­ing the sett.

sit­u­ated nearby; an evening vis­i­tor to Lau­rie’s gar­den helps it­self to sun­flower seeds from a bird­feeder. This bad­ger is ac­cus­tomed to the house lights. Clock­wise from right: a bad­ger emerges from its sett af­ter dark­ness; a close-up of bad­ger fur; claw mark­ings on a fallen tree are a tell-tale sign that a bad­ger sett is

Fam­ily friend: Lau­rie’s son hand­feeds a young bad­ger.

Top: Lau­rie had no­ticed bad­gers shuf­fling along a dead tree “hoover­ing up” slugs and var­i­ous in­sects, and so he lay in wait to cap­ture this be­hav­iour.

Above: af­ter bad­gers had been com­ing to his gar­den for years, Lau­rie left the door open, ha­bit­u­at­ing the an­i­mals to the scents and am­bi­ent sounds of his house.

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