This was a country diary piece written for the Suffolk Magazine about Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s badger hide.
Dusk is falling as we arrive. Birds are bidding an explosive farewell to the light while owls ke-wick in greeting to the dark. They are marking a changing of the guard, that special time of day when the human order is replaced by the wildness of the night watch.
There are eight of us sitting in Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s badger hide, perched on padded seats, our faces glued to the large front windows. Even the four children, wound tight with a combination of anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a late night are no longer drumming their feet on the floorboards – their energy channelled into the gloom, trying to pull a badger from the sett with willpower alone.
The bank below us is a sandy moonscape of craters and holes, shelving down through thickets of scrub and trees to a glinting ribbon of stream. When everything is still the eye is drawn to the slightest movement and it’s not long before we’re watching our first visitors. A wood mouse, then a rat, scurry out from cover to snaffle some of the peanuts we scattered for the badgers. They sit on their haunches under a cluster of nettles, munching from tiny hands. The children squeal in delight.
Then, to gasps, comes the badger. I expected a bumbling old Brock. Curmudgeonly, slow, bull-dozing through brush; magnificent, yet lumpen. This creature is anything but. Sleek and elegant he jogs in little bursts, sucking up peanuts at a terrific speed, his pink tongue dabbing repeatedly at the ground. His face is a thing of absolute beauty. Thick wedges of black run from the neat triangles of his ears to a wet squash ball of nose. The trademark white stripe almost glows in the low light.
I feel my daughter’s hand slip into mine. She’s entranced, but also full of cold. She tries and fails to stifle a cough. The badger freezes. Stock-still he stares towards the hide, his eyes like the darkest of currants. Our whispers fade to silence, a collective breath held.
The badger shakes his head and moves off again, hunger overcoming caution. I’ve heard that recent visitors to this hide were lucky enough to see 12 badgers, including several stocky cubs. Not tonight though, the low-level hubbub must be too much. This lone animal must be the bravest or the deafest in the sett. He ambles closer to us now, huffing and nosing the soil; heading towards a badger lollipop of honey slopped onto stick.
He never reaches it. A tawny owl swoops noisily into the clearing and the badger is off and running, his coat rippling around his legs like cuttlefish frills. Even in flight he retains an air of elegance, like a Victorian lady hitching up her skirt, greying lamb-tail bouncing cheerfully behind.
There is real power to his movement too. He’s like a locomotive charging down these well-trodden tracks, before popping out on the opposite bank of the stream some 30 seconds later. He looks back at us once and then is gone.
Our night watch is over.Follow @MattGaw