This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
As the night wore on, it almost invariably happened, however, that the " Castle" game gave place to a livelier diversion akin to "Puss in the Corner," when, on feeble, unsteady legs, the " earth-pigs" romped in pursuit of each other, or squatted, grunting with excitement, in different spots near the wall of their nursery. But, tired at last, they ceased their gambols an hour or so before dawn, lay together in a warm, panting heap, and slept, till, on the return of their mother to the "set," they were gathered to the soft comfort of her folded limbs, and fed and fondled to their hearts' content.
Though Brock grew as rapidly as any young badger might be expected to grow, a comparatively long time passed by before he and the other small members of the family ventured out of doors. Repeatedly they were warned, in a language which soon they perfectly understood, that, except under the care of their parents, a visit to the outer world would end disastrously; so, while the old ones were abroad, the little creatures dared not move beyond the opening to the dark passage between the chamber and the gallery above. Sometimes, following their dam when she climbed the steep passage to her favourite lookout corner within a mouth of the burrow, they caught a glimpse of the sky, and of the trees and the bracken around their home; but a journey along the gallery was never made before the twilight deepened.
The purpose of such close confinement was, that the young badgers should be taught, thoroughly and without risk, the first principles of wood-craft, and thus be enabled to hold their own in that struggle for existence, the stress of which is known even to the strong. Obedience, ever of vital importance in the training of the forest folk, was impartially exacted by the mother from her offspring. It was also taught by a system of immediate reward. The old badger invariably uttered a low but not unmusical greeting when she returned to her family at dawn. Almost before their eyes were open, the sucklings learned to connect this sound with food and comfort, and at once turned to the spot from which it proceeded. Later, when the same note was used as a call, they recognised that its meaning was varied; in turn it became, with subtle differences of inflection, an entreaty, a command, and a warning that it would be folly to ignore; but, whatever it might indicate, they instinctively remembered its first happy associations, and hurried to their mother's side. Hardly different from the call, when it conveyed the idea of warning, was a note of definite dissent, directing the youngsters to cease from squabbling, and to become less noisy in their rough-and-tumble play. After they had learned each minute difference in the call notes, their progress in education was largely determined by that love of mimicry which always prompts the young to imitate the old; and in time they acquired the tastes, the passions, and the experiences of their watchful teachers.
While prevented from wandering abroad, they nevertheless were not entirely ignorant of what was happening in the woods. They were not quickly weaned; it was necessary, before the dam denied them Nature's first nourishment, that they should have ready access to the brook that trickled down the hillside hollow not far from the "set." But meanwhile, young rabbits, dug from the breeding " stops " of the does, were frequently brought to them, and the badgers were encouraged to gratify a love for solid food which nightly became stronger.
In this part of the education of their young, the parent badgers adopted methods similar to those of the fox and other carnivorous animals. When first the mother badger brought a rabbit home, she placed it close beside her cubs, so that they could not fail to be attracted by its scent. For a moment, aware of something new and strange, they showed signs of timidity, and crouched together in the middle of the nest; but the presence of their mother reassured them, and they sniffed at the warm body with increasing delight. The dam seemed to know each trifling thought passing through their minds ; and, observing their eager interest, she dragged the rabbit into a corner of the bed, making great show of savagery, as if guarding it from their attacks. Time after time, she alternately surrendered and withdrew her victim, till the tempers of the little animals, irritated beyond control by her tantalising methods, blazed out in a free fight among u themselves for possession of the prize. The mother now retired to a corner of the " set," and listened attentively to all that happened, till they had finished their quarrel, and Brock, the middle figure in a group of tired youngsters, lay fast asleep with his head on the rabbit's neck. Then she turned, climbed quietly to the upper galleries, and, stealing out among the shadows of the wood, came again to the breeding "stop," where she unearthed and devoured a young rabbit that had been suffocated in the loose soil thrown up during her former visit. After quenching her thirst at the brook in the hollow, she journeyed to the upland fields, crossed the scent of her mate in the gorse, and then " cast" back across the hillside, making a leisurely examination of each woodland sign, to satisfy herself that no danger lurked in the neighbourhood of her home.
For the badger, as for the tiny field-vole in the rough pastures of the Cerdyn valley, the various scents and sounds were full of meaning, and constituted a record of the night such as only the woodland folk have learned fully to understand. The smell of the fox lay strong on a path between the oaks; with it was mingled the scent of a bird; and a white feather, caught by a puff of wind, fluttered in the grass: young Reynard, boldest of an early family in the "earth," had stolen a fowl from a neighbouring farmyard near the river, and had carried it—not slung over his shoulders, as fanciful writers declare, but with its tail almost touching the soil—into the thicket beyond the wood. Rabbits had wandered in the undergrowth; and, near a large warren, the stale, peculiar odour of a stoat that had evidently prowled at dusk lingered on the dewy soil. The signs of blackbirds and pigeons among the loose leaf-mould were also faint; as soon as night had fallen, the birds had flown to roost in the branches overhead. The short, coughing bark of an old fox came from the edge of the wood ; and then for some time all was quiet, till the musical cry of an otter sounded low and clear from the river beneath the steep.
These familiar voices of the wilderness caused the badger no anxiety; they told her of freedom from danger; they were to her assuring signals from the watchers of the night. But the howl of a dog in a distant farmstead, and the bleat of a restless sheep in the pasture on the far side of the hill, told her a different story; they reminded her, as the smell of the fowl had done, that man, arch-enemy of the woodland people, might in any capricious moment threaten her existence, seeking to destroy her even while by day she slumbered in her chamber under the roots of the forest trees.
She crossed the gap, where the river-path joined the down-stream boundary of the wood, then, with awkward, shambling stride, climbed the steep pasture, and for a few moments paused to watch and listen in the deep shadows of the hedge on the brow of the slope. A rabbit, that had lain out all night in her "seat" beneath the briars, rushed quickly from the undergrowth, and fled for safety to a burrow in the middle of the field. A small, dim form appeared for a moment by a wattled opening between the pasture and the cornfield above, then, with a rustle of dry leaves, vanished on the further side—a polecat was returning to her home in a pile of stones that occupied a hollow on the edge of the wood.
Day was slowly breaking. A cool wind, blowing straight from the direction of a homestead indistinctly outlined against the dawn, stirred the leaves in the ditch, and brought to the badger's nostrils the pungent scent of burning wood—the milkmaid was already at work preparing a frugal breakfast in the kitchen of a lonely farm. Fearing that with the day the birds would mock her as she passed, and thus reveal her whereabouts to some inquisitive foe, the badger sought the loneliest pathway through the wood, and returned, silently but hastily, to her home.