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.
Comparatively little seems to be known of the night side of wild life in this country. Night watching involves prolonged exposure, unremitting vigilance, absolute quietness; and yet, to the most alert observer, it often results in nothing but disappointment and vexation.
Some time ago, during the moonlit nights of several months, I kept watch, near a "set" inhabited by half-a-dozen badgers, a vixen and her cubs, a rabbit and her numerous progeny, and a solitary little buck wood-mouse, whose close acquaintanceship I made after I had captured him in a butterfly-net placed as a spring-trap above his narrow run-way in the grass. This "set"—which I have already partly described, in writing of Brock, the badger—seemed to be the common lodging house of the wood. Its numerous inhabitants, though not on terms of friendship, were, apparently, not at enmity. The wood-mouse and the rabbits, while entering or leaving the underground passages, and wandering through the paths in the wood, took care to avoid their powerful neighbours; the foxes, believing that out of sight is out of mind, avoided with equal care all chances of encountering the badgers ; and the badgers, sluggish in movement and tolerant in disposition, refrained from evicting the foxes or digging out the rabbits.
In the undergrowth, but away from the well worn tracks used by the creatures as they stole out to feed, I had chosen three hiding places, representing in their relative positions the corners of a triangle the centre of which was the main entrance to the "set." I was thus able, whatever might be the direction of the wind, to lie to leeward and obtain a clear view of the principal opening, while I incurred but slight risk of detection, unless the rabbits or the wood-mouse crept into the brambles.
It was during the last week of watching that my patience received its best rewards. Almost regularly then, as the shadows deepened before moonrise, the rabbits stole out, and, sometimes with no hesitation, sometimes after much cautious reconnoitring and sniffing the air and "drumming" alarm signals on the mound before their door, hopped along the paths towards the clover-fields outside the wood. Soon after the rabbits appeared, the wood-mouse timidly peeped around the corner of the entrance, and, seeing nothing of his enemy, the brown owl, disappeared, with a rustle, among the dead leaves that filled a hollow where the old, disused workings of the "set" had "shrunk".
On several occasions, the vixen led forth her cubs long before the badgers came in view, and while the light yet lingered on the crests of the neighbouring hills. The little family went away silently to a dense furze-brake about a hundred yards distant on the lower edge of the wood, and, till the sun had gone down, remained close-hidden in a lair that I afterwards discovered amid the long grass in the heart of the thicket.
More frequently, however, I saw nothing of the vixen till nightfall, though the cubs, impatient of confinement, now and again visited the mound outside the " set," and for a few moments played together on the bare soil thrown up by the hard-working badgers, as, in spring, they enlarged their breeding chamber. But, in the first calm hour of night, when the red afterglow had faded from the hills, and the moon, ascending cloudless in the southern sky, cast long, mysterious shadows down the aisles of the wood, the fox-cubs and their dam came boldly out, and, instead of moving off towards the furze, adjourned to a rill close by, whence, after quenching their thirst, they repaired to a glade above the "set," and in this favourite playground frisked and romped, unremittingly guarded from danger by their devoted mother. My presence unsuspected, I watched them, little dim figures, flitting to and fro.
When they had gone far up the winding pathway to the cornfields, and the silence was no longer broken by their low cries of dissembled rage and fear, I sometimes lingered in my hiding place; and as on the grass I lay, looking towards the stars that twinkled between the motionless leaves of the trees above me, my thoughts went back to a time long before our village had been built beside the river; before Giraldus Cambrensis had journeyed hence with the pilgrim band towards Sant Dewi's shrine; before the great Crag of Vortigern, across the near dingle, had resounded with the blare of the trumpets of war; before even, in the primitive hut-circle on the opposite hill, wild little children had played about the twilight fires kindled in readiness for the home-coming of the weary hunters—a time when the fox, the badger, and the tiny mouse had nightly journeyed through the woods, and the call of the gaunt wolf to his mate had weirdly echoed and re-echoed in the valley, startling the innocent hare in the open waste above the slope, and the busy beaver on the dam below in the pool at the bend of the river.
The badgers — or "earth-pigs" as the country folk have named them—were the original occupants of the " set," unless, however, the earliest excavations had been made by the ancestors of the old doe-rabbit now inhabiting a side apartment. The foxes and the wood-mouse might have been looked upon as interlopers, but they often played the part of scouts and sentinels, quick to give alarm to the tolerant, easygoing badgers, in case of imminent danger from the visit of a dog or a man to the neighbourhood of their retreat.
The badgers were more irregular as to the time when they left the " set" than were any of the other inhabitants. Perhaps they suspected a human presence, because of some peculiar vibration in the earth through a false step of mine. Perhaps, during certain conditions of the atmosphere, a taint—borne from me, on a wave rather than a current of air, to the wide archway beneath the tree-roots in front of the main entrance, and then drawn down into the draughty passages — was detected by them immediately they passed beyond the stagnant atmosphere of the blind-alley where they slept. Evening after evening, one of the old badgers would appear at the mouth of the " set," and, with snout uplifted in the archway of the tree-roots, would stay as motionless, but for the restless twitching of the alert nostrils, as were the trees and the stones around his home, while I, not even daring to flick an irritating gnat from my forehead or neck, would wait and long for the philosopher in grey to make up his slow-moving mind.