Country Matter: Old Brock stars in set piece

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THE FIRST vixen could not wait for dark to fall. There she stood, hovering on the edge of the shrubbery, lured, no doubt, by the smell of peanuts, which had been liberally scattered over the lawn. Inside the house, about 30 watchers clustered at two large bay windows, one upstairs, one down.

We had come to see badgers, rather than foxes, so the vixen was no more than a welcome curtain-raiser. As she dithered, our host regaled us with stories of how, during the winter, badgers had dug up and eaten the parsnips in the vegetable garden beyond the lawn, economically using the pits left behind as lavatories.

Night came slowly down, daylight replaced by the glow of a floodlamp. The vixen appeared again in the mouth of the tunnel beneath the shrubs: bolder now, she advanced into the open and began foraging for nuts, holding her long, pointed muzzle right down on the grass. Each time she found a nut, she raised her nose, tipped back her head, and nibble-gnashed her prize into fragments with multiple, rapid munching movements.

Another russet ghost flitted across the background, and a second vixen slipped on to the lawn, easily distinguishable by her brush, which was twisted to one side. Within seconds a third appeared. They foraged with jerky, nervous movements, frequently glancing back to the thick wall of cover behind them. All three were in fine condition, but heavy in the midriff - either pregnant or already suckling cubs.

Some noise startled them. In a flurry of movement they vanished, and our stage was left empty. Then a voice whispered, 'There]' In the dark ring of the shrubbery tunnel to our left, a black-and-white face had appeared. Brock was with us at last. After a pause to check his surroundings, out he came, a sleek, pear-shaped fellow, narrow of head and broad of belly, with eyes barely visible in the dark stripes on either side of his head.

Soon a second badger appeared, then a third and finally a fourth. All fed with solid concentration, using their front paws to turn nuts up out of the grass, and when I cautiously opened one window to get a clearer view, the noise of mastication was loud on the air. Presently, the foxes stole back into the open: the badgers ignored them, and we sat spellbound by the sight of seven wild animals feeding within 10 yards of us.

As I watched, I reflected on the extraordinary strength of emotion that badgers evoke in humans. Dairy farmers hate them, believing that they transmit tuberculosis to cows, which have to be slaughtered if they react positively to TB tests. Badger-baiters lust after them and dig them up so that they can set them to fight dogs in contests of medieval barbarity. Conservationists love them and are prepared to spend fortunes on their protection - although even they cannot prevent thousands being run over on the roads every year.

Last month, only a few miles along the escarpment, fanciers were outraged to find that a set had been illegally excavated, leaving a crater 10ft deep, and they immediately offered a reward of pounds 500 for information leading to conviction of the diggers. Around the same time, the grapevine reported that the Prince of Wales had had 13 cows taken away from Highgrove after TB tests had proved positive. Another farmer was lamenting the fact that badgers have extended a set far out from the edge of a wood into one of his fields: a whole acre has been undermined, and with the law as it stands at present, he is powerless to repel the invaders.

Poor Brock] What he needs, and should soon get (for the Ministry of Agriculture has long been working on it), is some form of immunisation, which will prevent him suffering from or carrying TB. This at least will reduce the enmity of farmers; but then conservationists will have to face the unpleasant fact that badgers may have to be managed and culled - as deer already are - if they are to survive healthily in our overcrowded island.

ALL the elements are lining up well for the launch next Saturday of the first, celebratory train from Coaley Junction. This is the station on the main railway line between Gloucester and Bristol which was closed in the Beeching era and which - as I described a few weeks ago - is about to open again after a campaign by Cojac, the Coaley Junction Action Committee, actively supported by Gloucester County Council.

Normally the station will serve Gloucester, Bristol and other nearby destinations; but such has been local interest in the inaugural run to Paignton, in Devon, that the 281 places on the four-carriage train could have been filled four times over. As soon as booking opened, applications came in for nearly 1,000 seats, and many more disappointed fans never bothered to fill in the forms.

The lucky few will be sent off in style by a detachment of the Stinchcombe Silver Band, who will play the Cojac Express out of the station at 9.15am. At the other end it will be met at Torbay by civic dignitaries, who will join the party for the last leg of the journey.

In the old days the chuffer which ran up and down the 2 1/2 -mile branch-line from Coaley Junction to the town of Dursley was known as the Dursley Donkey. The branch line has gone, but the name has been revived for a new beer created for the occasion by Chas Wright and his colleague Mel Griffiths at the village brewery in Uley, just up the valley. Chas, whose ales generally bear names related to pigs - Old Spot, Pig's Ear, Pigor Mortis, Schweinenbrau - describes Dursley Donkey as a 'light, fruity beer with plenty of hops about the taste'. There will be little chance of the revellers running short, for Chas, Mel and Rick Sainty, landlord of the Old Spot inn in Dursley, together with Julian, the pub's manager, will all be on board the train armed with generous supplies.

Coincidentally, on Monday, Uley bitter will go on sale for the first time in the House of Commons - one result of the initiative of the Parliamentary Beer Group, under its president, Betty Boothroyd. Yet consumption at Westminster is unlikely to rival that on board the Cojac Express.

The two brewers are both men of considerable stature and girth; nevertheless, they have been seen to move with remarkable alacrity when assembling or dismantling their portable bar. They will certainly have to shift themselves next Saturday, for when the train pulls into Coaley station at 9.05am, they will have barely 10 minutes to load the bar, equipment and eight 18- gallon kegs of beer into the space normally reserved for luggage. Then in Paignton, they will have to unload bar and beer and lock the whole lot inside a shed for the middle of the day, as the regulations do not permit a train to be stocked with liquor while it is standing empty.

My calculations suggest that the Express will set out with 1,152 pints of Dursley Donkey on board. Only time will show how many, if any, survive the return journey. Chas's main concern is that the train should reach its outward destination on schedule, not too long after opening time, so that essential research into hostelries on the Devon coast is not unduly curtailed.

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