Mal­colm D. Welsh­man vis­its the sett of an en­thralling fam­ily drama.

The People's Friend Special - - NATURE -

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.

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