I awoke, as per usual, in the middle of the night and fumbled my way through the darkness to the bathroom, negotiating stairs along the way. We have a small window in this room and looking out into the darkness, I was presented with a nocturnal surprise in the shape of a short, stubby-legged, plumpish animal, ambling around the yard. It was 3:00 a.m. and I was bleary-eyed and tired, so I wasn’t certain what I was seeing at first, but I knew it was not a sheep, a fox, a hare, a dog, a cow, or even a Dartmoor pony. It was definitely low to the ground and as my eyes adjusted to the moonlight peeking through the clouds and trees, I noticed that it also had an elongated head and its little black face had white stripes.
Since we don’t have skunks in the UK it could only be its cousin, the Badger. With this sighting, we get to add them to our ever-growing list of critters and wildlife that come to visit us. I watched him and took in his splendor as he slowly made his way past the chicken coop. The chicken coop! While I was thrilled to have experienced this rare sighting, I laid awake the rest of the night worried about the safety and well being of our hens. The predator and prey relationship is all around us and we are doing our best to improve the odds of the prey in our care, namely our chickens and vegetables.
Ecologically speaking, predation is all about the relationship where one party feeds on another and we are indeed in the midst of this condition. The slugs are predators, targeting mostly our Tatsoi and Turnips. The chickens like to eat the worms in the soil, but also pick at the leaves of the Kale. The ticks in the grass occasionally find Sam. Those sheep will eat everything and anything plantlike should they get in beyond the boundaries of our yard. Inside the house, the spiders are busy building webs to attract all manner of smaller insect into their arachnid kitchen. In Dartmoor, and especially in the high moors where we are, most of the land is undisturbed providing encouragement for wildlife, which on a daily basis reminds us that we are in the midst of some serious predation.
Thanks to The Wind in The Willows, The Tale of Mr. Tod, Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Watership Down almost all of us can identify a badger from pictures seen during childhood. Sure, many of us have seen them squashed along the road by a car, or sometimes in the headlights on a country lane, but to see them in the wild doing their thing is almost exclusively the domain of a nature program with the aid of trip wires and hidden cameras. To be looking out the bathroom window at this hour provided a rare and wonderful glimpse of this short-legged creature on his late night perambulation.
What timing, too! The badger has been in the news a lot lately because in less than a month’s time a trial to determine if badgers can be killed humanely before extending a cull across the country to control the spread of bovine TB is about to begin. The debate over culling badgers in England has opinions widely divided. While most agree that bovine tuberculosis causes serious hardship to farmers and costs millions of pounds each year of the taxpayers’ money to control, there is little agreement about the science, policy development and wildlife conservation.
In absence of approval from the European Union for the use of the bovine vaccination, the British government has given approval for badgers to be culled in a pilot test in England this autumn. This pilot cull is designed to exclusively examine whether or not badgers can be killed effectively and humanely, and is not about the scientific data of TB transmission since the carcasses will not be tested for signs of TB. I find this problematic because on the basis of these results, government ministers will then decide whether or not to extend the culls nationwide. In recent developments and due to public protest, the pilot cull may be delayed at least a year.
Seeing the badger that night, brought the controversy more immediately to mind, but these short-legged omnivores shouldn’t cause us problems, except where the chickens are concerned. Badgers tend to eat earthworms, insects and grubs. Hopefully, they aren’t averse to eating slugs, because we’d like to see those gobbled up on a regular basis. Unfortunately, badgers can be a problem for the garden, as they seem to like to dig and eat roots and fruit. So goodbye turnips! They have an ability to tunnel after ground-dwelling rodents, so fair warning to the rats. They also eat small mammals and birds, including chickens. And, herein lies my worry. If they were to get hold of one of our hens, she would not stand a chance. I currently inspect the chicken coop weekly for any breeches that might make the hunting life easier for local predators, but now I must up my game on my own bio-security and ensure that the badgers can’t dig under the walls into the chicken coop!
As the weather turns colder and the days shorter, the grasses, bushes, and trees, are readying for winter, changing colour, dying back and dropping their leaves, generally providing less camouflage and making spotting the local wildlife a lot easier. Scarcity of food and cover means seeing a fox or deer on the hillside during daylight hours is increasingly more likely.
While working in the garden the other day, I heard two buzzards screeching and calling as they circled slowly in the sky. Something lay dead or dying on the hillside, and those buzzards were preparing for their meal. More predators in our midst. It was a beautiful sight to see these magnificent birds of prey float above the hill with the white on white clouds in the background. The autumn light cast a low golden glow upon the trees that are beginning to change from their summer green, complimented by the reeds now swaying hay-coloured along the river.
Later that same day, Roger and I were surprised to witness, through the kitchen window, a Sparrowhawk drop suddenly from the sky and buzz through the garden, disrupting all the little birds at the feeders. Failing in its attempt to snatch a bird, it took to resting on the fence. For over ten minutes, we quietly watched from our own perch in the kitchen as it recovered from its failed mission, spreading its wings and flattening its body on the fence as if to cool down after the adrenaline rush that resulted in no lunch. The chaffinches, tits, yellow hammers and nuthatches had all been put on warning. For the next hour, there were no birds feeding in our garden.
Like any skilled predator, the Sparrowhawk marked this spot as easy pickings and returned the next day. Again, no success. But it was considerably bolder as on this occasion, Roger, Sam and I were all out in the garden when this magnificent bird seemingly appeared from nowhere, sending small birds in all directions to seek shelter. It will be back and we may have to contend with one or two fewer birds at the feeder.
I appreciate that predation is just the order of things, but I still don’t want the badgers to get my chickens.