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.
Having lost the love of " venerie" possessed by their forefathers, the farmers cared little about any wild creatures but hares and rabbits; a badger's ham was to them an unknown article of food. The fear of a baited trap had, therefore, probably descended from one badger to another since days when the green-gowned forester came to the farm, from the lodge down-river, and sought assistance in the capture of an animal for the sport of an otherwise dull Sunday afternoon in the courtyard of the nearest castle; or even since ages far remote, when a badger's flesh was esteemed a luxury by the earliest Celts.
Unbaited traps, in the " runs " of the rabbits, had at intervals been common for centuries; but now the carefully prepared baits and the unusually strong traps seemed to indicate nothing less than an organised attack on other and more powerful night hunters. The badger's fears, however, were hardly warranted. Five traps had been placed in the wood by a curious visitor staying at the village inn. In one of these, Brock's sister had been caught; but the owner of the trap knew nothing beyond the fact that it had mysteriously disappeared from the spot where he had seen it fixed. Another was sprung by Brock; two at the far end of the wood were so completely fouled by a fox that every prowling creature carefully avoided the spot; while in the fifth was found a single blood-stained claw, left to prove the visit of a renegade cat.
It may well be imagined that a large and interesting animal like the badger, keeping for many years to an underground abode so spacious that the mound at its principal entrance is often a quite conspicuous landmark for some distance in the woods, would be subject to frequent and varied attacks from man, and thus be speedily exterminated. It may also be imagined that the habits of following the same well worn paths night after night, of never ranging further than a few miles from the "set," and of living so sociably that the community sometimes numbers from half-a-dozen to a dozen members, apart from such lodgers as foxes, rabbits, and woodmice, would all combine to render the creature an easy prey.
But if the badger's ways are carefully studied, the very circumstances which at first seem unfavourable to him are found to account for much of his immunity from harm. The depth of his breeding chamber and the length of the connecting passages are, as a rule, indicated by the size of the mound before his door. The fact that he regularly pursues the same paths in his nightly excursions enables him to become familiar, like the fox, with each sight and scent and sound of the woods, so that anything strange is at once noticed, and danger avoided. His sociability is a distinct gain, because he receives therefrom co-operation in his sapping and mining while he aims to secure the impregnability of his fortress; and his tolerance of cunning and timid neighbours gains for him this advantage: sometimes in the dusk, before venturing abroad, he receives a warning that danger lurks in the thickets around his home— perhaps from a double line of scent indicating that the fox has started on a journey and then hurriedly turned back, or from numerous cross-scents at the mouth of the burrow, where the rabbits and the woodmice have passed to and fro, deterred by fear in their frequent attempts to reach feeding places beyond the nearest briar-clumps. His methods, however, when either his neighbours or the members of his own family become too numerous, are prompt and drastic.
Shy, inoffensive, and, for a young creature unacquainted with the responsibilities of a family, deliberate to the point of drollery in all his movements, Brock grew up beneath his parents' care; and, with an intelligence keener than that possessed by the other members of the little woodland family, learned many lessons which they failed to understand. When his mother called, he was always the first to hasten to her side. Each incident of the night, if of any significance, was explained to her offspring by the mother. Often Brock was the only listener when she began her story, and the late arrivals heard but disconnected parts.
Beautiful beyond comparison were those brief summer nights, silent, starlit, fragrant, when the badgers led their young by many a devious path through close-arched bowers amid the tangled bracken, or under drooping sprays of thorn and honeysuckle in the hidden ditches, or through close tunnels, as gloomy as the passages of their underground abode, in the dense thickets of the furze. Sometimes they wandered in the corn and root-crop, or in the hay field where the sorrel, a cooling medicinal herb for many of the woodland folk, grew long and succulent; and sometimes they descended the steep cattle-path on the far side of the farm, where the big dor-beetles, as plentiful there as in the grass-clumps of the open pasture, were easily struck down while they circled, droning loudly, about the heaps of refuse near the hedge.
Once, late in July, when the badgers were busily catching beetles by the side of the cattle-path, Brock, thrusting his snout into the grass to secure a crawling insect, chanced to hear a faint, continuous sound, as of a number of tiny creatures moving to and fro in a hollow beneath the moss-covered mound at his feet. He listened intently, his head cocked knowingly towards the spot whence the sound proceeded; then, scratching up a few roots of the moss, he sniffed enquiringly, drawing in a long, deep breath, at the mouth of a thimble-shaped hole his sharp claws had exposed.
Unexpectedly, and without the help of the dam, he had discovered a wild-bees' nest. His inborn love of honey was every whit as strong as a bear's, and he recognised the scent as similar to that of insects known by him to be far more tasty than beetles; so, without a moment's hesitation, he began to dig away the soil. The nest was soon unearthed, and the little badger, completely protected by his thick and wiry coat from the half-hearted assaults of the bewildered bees, greedily devoured the entire comb, together with every well-fed grub and every drop of honey the fragile cells contained. His eagerness was such that these spoils seemed hardly more than a tempting morsel sufficient to awaken a desire for the luscious sweets of the wayside storehouses. He carefully hunted the hedgerow, as far as a gate leading to a rick-yard, and at last, close to a stile, found another nest, which, also, he quickly destroyed.
Henceforth, till the end of August, there were few nights during which he did not find a meal of honey and grubs. The summer was fine and warm, a lavish profusion of flowers adorned the fields and the woods, and humble-bees and wasps were everywhere numerous. As if to taunt the badgers with inability to climb, a swarm of tree-wasps lived in a big nest of wood-pulp suspended from a branch ten feet or so above the "set," and, every afternoon, the badgers, as they waited near the mouth of their dwelling for the darkness to deepen, heard the shrill, long continued humming of the sentinel wasps around the big ball in the tree—surely one of the most appetising sounds that could ever reach a badger's ears. But the wasps that had built among the ferns near the river-path, and in the hollows of the hedges, were remorselessly hunted and despoiled. Their stings failed to penetrate the thick coat and hide of their persistent foes, while a chance stab on the lips or between the nostrils seemed only to arouse the badgers from leisurely methods of pillage to quick and ruthless slaughter of the adult insects as well as of the immature grubs. But Brock never committed the indiscretion of swallowing a full-grown wasp. With his fore-paws he dexterously struck and crippled the angry sentinels that buzzed about his ears, and, with teeth bared in order to prevent a sting on his tender muzzle, disabled the newly emerged and sluggish insects that wandered over the comb.
As autumn drew on, the cubs grew strong and fat on the plentiful supplies of food, which, with their parents' help, they readily found in field and wood. Brock gave promise of abnormal strength, and was already considerably heavier than his sister. They fared far better than the third cub, a little male, that, notwithstanding a temper almost as fiery as Brock's, was worsted in every dispute and frequently robbed of his food, and still, never owning himself beaten, persisted in drawing attention to his success whenever he happened on something fresh and toothsome. At such times, instead of hastily and silently regaling himself, he made a great a-do, grunting with rage and defiance, like a dog that guards a marrow-bone but will not settle down to gnaw its juicy ends.
Brock's brother was so often deprived of his legitimate spoils, that, while his surliness was increased, his bodily growth was checked. He was small and thin for his age ; and so, when a kind of fever peculiar to young badgers broke out in the woodland home, he succumbed. His grave was a shallow depression near the path below the "set," whither his parents dragged his lifeless body, and where the whispering leaves of autumn presently descended to array him in a red and golden robe of death.
The other young badgers quickly recovered from their fever; and by the end of October all the animals were, as sportsmen say, " in grease," and well prepared for winter's cold and privation. The old badgers became more and more indisposed to roam abroad ; and, whereas in summer they sometimes wandered four or five miles from the "set," they now seldom went further than the gorse-thicket on the fringe of the wood.