Encounters with badgers

John Aitchison

My job is to make wildlife films for television.  For that reason as well as for pleasure, I’ve spent hundreds of nights in the company of badgers. Most of those nights I spent in a wood in Oxfordshire, filming by the light of infra-red lamps, which were invisible to the badgers and to me, but not to a special type of camera.  It gave me a privileged view into the lives of one family of badgers.

Although this family had become very used to me being there, I had put up a small hide, to break up my shape, and as I sat inside it every evening they would come up out of their sett and spend an hour or so all around me, behaving as if I was not there.  For a filmmaker, of course, it was wonderful.

The adults were often hungry and keen to get started with their night so they’d quickly scent-mark and perhaps groom each other for a few minutes, then head off to search for earthworms in the meadows around the wood.  Worms are their main food and they would spend hours rooting for them, especially after rain, but sometimes I would find where they had dug up other food, moving surprisingly large stones to reach a bumblebees’ nest for instance.

Others would stay behind longer at the sett to bring out and air their old bedding.  They would sometimes replace it too, dragging bundles of dry grass with their front legs and moving backwards along clear paths in the wood and then right down into the sett.

The infra-red camera allowed me to see in complete darkness and it revealed how completely at home the badgers were in the dark – much more confident than they were in daylight. I would quickly forget that they couldn’t see anything at all but there were occasional reminders: one once walked straight into a hawthorn bush while another time a pair of playful cubs rolled into a tunnel and vanished back underground with a squeal.

Many of the most intimate moments I filmed involved the cubs because when they were young their parents left them behind with a “baby-sitter”, most likely an aunt or cousin, instead of taking them foraging.

That summer was particularly dry and all the badgers were desperately short of water.  Two cubs discovered a pool in a hollow between two tree branches.  It was five feet up, well above their heads, but a well-placed log led to a fallen branch and from there, on tiptoe, they could just about reach the pool.  There was only room for one at a time and I filmed the more adventurous cub clambering up to reach the water.  Its hard-earned drink was far from peaceful though – the other cub, waiting impatiently for its turn, repeatedly bounced up and nipped its tail.

Several times the cubs pushed their heads into the back of my hide to check what was inside but the closest encounter happened when one of them tired of a game with its siblings and bumbled across to have a rest.  It chose to sit with its back to my hide – perhaps by now the small tent was so much a part of its world that it felt safest with the canvas wall protecting it from ambush by the others – and leaning against the thin cloth it had its back resting on me. I could feel its back, firm and warm, leaning against my leg. It was an extended moment of the greatest calmness and trust and even after twenty years of filming it is still one of the most precious times I have ever spent with a wild animal.

Badgers are inoffensive, charming and family-living animals.  If any of them have tuberculosis it’s most likely because they or their relatives were originally given it by cows rather than the other way round. Leading experts in bovine Tuberculosis, such as Professor John Bourne who chaired the Government’s Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, are firm in their view that bTB is a cattle problem. In his letter of June 2007 to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs enclosing the final report of the ISG, Professor Bourne points out that,

“Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease [i.e. bTB] can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.”

Professor Bourne’s cover letter and the ISG report make it clear that much more can be done to address the bovine TB problem without culling badgers. We have no right to use badgers as scapegoats for the presence of this disease in our cattle herds or to cull them as an ill-thought out, scientifically invalid and politically motivated alternative to addressing the real problem of bovine TB transmission.

Instead of reaching for the gun, it’s time we took some responsibility for a problem that we have inflicted on our wildlife.

Badger Tales

© John Aitchison

John Aitchison has been a freelance wildlife filmmaker for more than twenty years, filming for many BBC series including Springwatch, Frozen Planet and the Big Cat Diary.  He also writes and presents his own radio series on BBC Radio 4 that explores our relationship with the natural world. These views are his own.

Additional Notes included at John’s request:

Professor Bourne also made the following points in his 2007 letter to the Secretary of State Environment:

“First, while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others’ data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better.

“Second, weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection.” (ISG Report, p. 5)

Note: Bold added to quote from John Bourne by Badgergate.