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Badgers on Cue

Michael Clark recounts a visit by the BBC’s Countryfile programme to his home soon after the new edition of his book Badgers was published and recounts what happened after the cameras had filmed his illustrations and then went to see if they could find the actual badgers.

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Countryfile is one of the most successful long running Sunday evening programmes the BBC has produced and it is exciting when they come to call. The hide to watch badgers and other nocturnal wildlife has been a feature of the Tewin Orchard Wildlife Trust reserve in Hertfordshire for twenty or so years. In the autumn of 2017 producer Ruth Davies came to plan a recording at the site. The idea was to show my interest in illustrating badgers over many years with examples, feature the new edition of my book on the species that now has colour plates added and then go to see the actual mammals themselves.

Ruth first asked me how our family came to live by the badgers at Tewin Orchard. I had first seen the site when I first completed a survey sheet for the big, rambling sett in the tip of Tewin Wood below the orchard planted in 1933 here. At the time I was Hertfordshire recorder of badger setts for the Mammal Society in their national survey that began at the start of the 1960s. I later became Mammal Recorder for all species in the county. On arrival I noticed there was a rubbish tip of old bottles and broken greenhouse glass frames dumped in the bottom of the chalk pit next to the earths.

When I later came with our young family to actually live in Molly Hopkyns' cottage in the orchard above the wood during one of my regular walks through the wood I found blood with badger tracks on one of the paths and was later allowed by Molly to organise a skip to clear away the dangerous material next to the sett. She was delighted to have the wood clean again and persuaded her cousin who owned the wood to donate his land here to the Wildlife Trust. My wife Anna and I became its volunteer wardens in 1972.

Over the fifty years since I first saw the sett it has now become part of the whole Tewin Orchard Nature Reserve, managed as one site by the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust, and visitors from all over the world have come to watch the wildlife here. Badgers, foxes, deer, rabbits, wood mice and bats in particular are attracted to food left at what we call ‘The Mammal Hide.’ At first the Herts & Middlesex Badger Group converted an old disused stable to watch from.

They have continued to help manage the use of the hide with Judith Denton doing bookings that the Trust is now taking on. A purpose built hide replaced the stable with windows that allow easy viewing from a wheelchair level and access is safe for anyone with disabilities. It is now named 'The Audrey Randall Hide' after one of our much admired late past Badger Group Chairs who also helped greatly with the design of the new, larger building. It was sponsored by The National Lottery Fund. Vehicles can drop off passengers close at the rear and then return to the car park so as not to frighten the wildlife.

I feed the wildlife here each evening throughout the year. My studies on badgers that culminated in being asked to write a book on them for the Whittet British Natural History series are nearly all linked to the nature reserve and I pass the badger sett at least twice a day on average. The book needed a new colour cover and I chose to illustrate a sow gathering bedding for her forthcoming family of cubs. The Tewin Hide is shown in the new colour plate section and the book has cross references to the Badger Trust, Wildlife Trust and Badger Group work.

The five cameras used by Countryfile moved from my drawings and paintings to the orchard and captured many beautiful views. Ellie Harrison introduced the whole programme walking amongst the old Bramley’s Seedlings and after high views down to her, a long boom featured falling apples in slow motion. The next question would be whether the badgers would appear at the hide. Two visitors had booked in and agreed previously to let the producer, camera crew and presenters join them at dusk.

Eventually we had about ten feeding and interacting in front of us. At one point a fox ran past to the right of the hide and sent the badgers running off back down the path until they realised it was only a fox and not a threat.

Michael Clark

Author of 'Badgers'

December 2017

Living in a monitored nature reserve has reduced the threats that wild badgers face, but they retain their shy, cautious approach to life so that watching has to be done carefully by humans. In a world where we are so used to just 'switching on' what we want to see when we enter a room, the wait for the wildlife to come into view is quite a difficult experience, especially for impatient youngsters, yet they seem to love the suspense and even come away with comments left in the diary such as 'The best thing my brother and I have ever seen.' Many return time and time again, hopefully with a lifetime love of badgers ahead of them.

Ellie is a very popular presenter and I found her totally charming as well as very knowledgeable. An Oxford graduate who is always enthusiastic about her subjects, she was able to comment in whispers the camera could catch without being noticed by the emerging badgers. One by one they started up the path to where I had left the evening food of dry dog food, peanuts and bird seed which has a hint of aniseed attractive to wildlife.

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