The dead badger

Owen Newman

I was up on the edge of the Salisbury plain one hot summer’s day in the ‘70s when I drove past a dead badger lying by the side of a narrow country lane. Normally, I always stopped to check that ‘dead’ badgers really were dead but this time, because of a tight deadline, I didn’t. Two days later a neighbour arrived on my doorstep and said, “I’ve found an injured badger not far away. Can you help?”

Working as a wildlife cameraman for the BBC’s Natural History Unit, I’d developed a bit of a reputation around home for being someone to turn to in a ‘wildlife emergency’ – maybe because I’d looked after some captive-bred owls that I was filming. After that people started bringing me all sorts of injured animals to rehabilitate.

We got into my car and he directed me towards the spot. As the minutes passed my heart began to sink: we were heading to the same lane where I’d seen the dead badger. Soon we reached the exact place and I realised to my horror that in my rush to get to my appointment, I had probably driven past an injured animal not a dead one. If it was the same one, it had somehow managed to crawl to the bottom of a damp ditch tangled with dock and nettles a few feet from where I’d seen it two days before. I fetched an old coat from the car, put it over its head and picked it up apprehensively. But there was not the faintest growl; other than a slight wriggle, there was no protest.  I put it in the back of the car as gently as I could and drove home.

Once there, I carried the badger still wearing its headdress into the kitchen. I put it down and realised straight away that ‘it’ was a she – her nipples were full of milk, which meant that she had cubs. I took the coat off her head and watched carefully to see how bad her injuries were. She could move a little but her back feet were dragging behind her. How had she survived two long hot days in that condition?

I gave her some water in a deep, heavy bowl and she thrust her whole head underwater to drink and drink – and drink.  At times, I took the bowl away so she wouldn’t drink too much too fast. I then rang my vet who asked me to bring her in straight away.

© Patrick Harrison

© Patrick Harrison

Once again, I covered her head with a coat, picked her up, hoisted her into the back of my car and off we set. The vet and I watched her crawl around the surgery dragging her back legs behind her. It was clear a car had hit her but luckily the wheels hadn’t gone over her. Instead the vet reckoned something underneath the car had hit her spine and he thought the spinal cord was probably undamaged but bruised.  He suggested that I keep her contained and feed her since the chances of her improving were very good.

I took her back home, fixed up a bed of straw on the concrete floor of a large shed and let her be. That night, I went to the sett that was closest to the accident site and waited to see if there were any cubs.  The hours passed slowly. Eventually an adult male emerged, followed soon after by two large cubs that looked old enough to last without their mother’s milk. The three went off to forage together and I felt a rush of relief.  One less thing to worry about.

Every day, I brought food to her front end and cleaned up around her back end. Not once did she show any signs of alarm or try to threaten me. I like to think that after a day or two, she even became quite pleased to see me – in an accepting badger-kind of way. As the weeks passed, she began to move around more and more. Five weeks after I’d brought her home, I woke up early one morning to the sounds of energetic scratching on the sides of the shed.  She was up and about, trotting from one side of the shed to the other, trying to get out.

I rang the vet and he agreed that it was time for me to take my ‘dead’ badger home. So I popped her into a large cage trap and drove back at dusk to a badger trail not far from the sett near where she’d been found and let her go.  She pottered off and I’d like to say that she looked back at me but she didn’t. No matter. I’m left with the striking memory of a shy, nocturnal animal with every reason to fear people that had let me manhandle her without any alarm or threat even when in pain.  Her fortitude, stoicism, patience – whatever you want to call it – was remarkable. It was also a wake-up call. I have never driven past another badger by side of the road since then without stopping to checking if it really was dead.

Note: In recent years, much has changed legally with respect to looking after injured wildlife. So if you find an injured badger on the side of the road, please ring the Badger Trust on 08458 287878. You can also be better prepared for such incidents by reading their information on what to do, which can be downloaded from http://www.badger.org.uk/content/w-rehab.asp

Owen Newman filmed and produced wildlife documentaries for the BBC’s Natural History for over 30 years. After making a number of award-winning films on British wildlife, including mice, hedgehogs, blue tits and others, Owen headed to Africa, where he gained international acclaim for his innovative infra-red films that revealed the night-time world of leopards, caracals and wild cats. He has also filmed flamingos, lions, and cheetahs as well as many other smaller, less well-known animals such as serval cats and jackals along with Arctic foxes, red kangaroos in Australia and jaguars in South America. Owen is especially admired by the wildlife film industry for his intimate portrayals of  animals combined with stunning photography.