Country Matters: A badger's dream home, just 1,600 pounds

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The Independent Online
AT 11.30am on Wednesday, Bluebell the tame badger, star of the show, made a suitably flamboyant appearance, swathed from head to foot in a pink candlewick bedspread; but then, like the prima donna she was, she refused absolutely to perform.

Her role was to launch a new pamphlet on the construction and siting of artificial setts published by the magazine Country Life; and for the occasion a thoroughly desirable, two-bedroomed residence had been built into a bank at the back of New Road Farm, near East Huntspill, in the flat expanse known as the Somerset Levels.

Every precaution had been taken to make the home attractive. The spoil heap outside the entrance contained earth from a live sett, so that it smelt like the real thing. The drainage was all that Brock could desire. The tunnels of 10-inch plastic pipe were exactly the right diameter, so that badgers would be able to brace themselves against the walls as they trundled up and down. The chambers were separated from each other by inner tunnels to ensure privacy and warmth, and each was lined with wood, to give a natural feel.

In spite of all these inducements, Bluebell declined to play ball. Put down at the main entrance, she checked her surroundings with infinite care, sniffing every blade of grass and crumb of soil, but into the tunnel she would not go.

Her reluctance was hardly surprising, for a battery of cameras was snapping and flashing at her from close range, and in any case she is a nocturnal animal, not used to daytime outings. But her indifference was in no way a reflection on the design of the artificial sett, which has already won wide acceptance.

Its creators, Penny Cresswell and her husband, Warren, were there on Wednesday to keep an eye on events. The Protection of Badgers Bill, passed last year, made it mandatory for authorities to provide alternative accommodation when colonies are displaced by development, and the demand for artificial setts is now such that the Cresswells have set up a consultancy to meet it.

They offer two models - the dream home shown on Wednesday, costing pounds 1,600, and a heavy- duty badger bunker, reinforced with wire mesh and concrete slabs, designed to withstand attack by diggers. After a year in business, the Cresswells claim a high success rate: of the 13 setts installed so far, 12 have been permanently occupied.

The one shown in Somerset is in fact destined for the Berrow Primary School at Burnham-on- Sea, where a dinner lady suddenly found the ground subsiding beneath her feet outside some temporary classrooms. Investigation revealed that badgers had undermined the foundations, and the aim now is to shift the colony to a corner of the playing fields.

As a site for demonstrating the dream home, New Road Farm proved ideal, for its owners, Derek and Pauline Kidner, have made their establishment so interesting that it attracts nearly 50,000 people a year. Not only is it an open working farm, with cows, bees, goats, ferrets and so on: recent emphasis on wildlife and the rehabilitation of casualties has produced a most curious menagerie.

Visitors this week had first to circumnavigate a colossal Norfolk black turkey that was posturing and gobbling about the yard. The route to the badger sett took us past one enclosure containing foxes, and another inhabited by eagle owls, which blew out their gular sacs to launch low, melodious hoots. Oswald the Vietnamese pig was much in evidence, and a barn owl called Sage rode imperturbably on Pauline Kidner's shoulder.

With several experts present, talk naturally centred on badgers and their well being. The population in Britain is now thought to number 250,000 adults, which produce some 175,000 cubs a year. Of the adults, about 30 per cent die every year, and of these a third - perhaps 20,000 animals - are killed on roads. At this stage of the winter, when sows are about to give birth and so are mainly homebound, it is the boars that are most at risk during their nocturnal perambulations.

Warren Cresswell confirmed what I have long suspected: that the area in which I live - the Cotswold escarpment - has the highest density of badgers on earth: up to 20 per square kilometre. One reason is that the limestone and sand on the sides of the valleys are well drained and easily excavated, offering ideal accommodation; and another that most of the valley bottoms are too steep or too damp for arable farming, so they remain permanent pasture.

This means that earthworms, which come to the surface in grassland at night, and form the staple diet of badgers, are almost always available. Badgers benefit still further from the way in which man has fashioned the Cotswold landscape into relatively small fields bounded by walls and hedges: some areas are always sheltered from the wind, and it is in still places of this kind that worms come up most readily - to their doom. On a good night a single roving scavenger will eat at least 150.

One of the most engaging aspects of badgers is their self-effacement: as happened at Berrow School, they can take up residence right next door, or even under you, without ever being seen. At home, we have an active colony just inside the wood at the far end of our fields: immense earthworks, frequently improved and re-excavated, bear witness to the industry of the inmates, and in the wood regular highways are beaten flat by the nightly traffic.

Yet never once in seven years have I seen a badger on or near that site. No doubt if I sat up on moonlit nights, I should be rewarded - but I prefer to leave the colony in peace.

All the more reason, then, to study Bluebell at close quarters this week. Brought up by Daphne Kidner as a cub, she is now three years old, and perfectly tame - at least with her mentor. Yet, thanks to the ingenious arrangements devised at New Road Farm, she enjoys the extraordinary privilege of being able to choose her environment, domestic or wild.

After she had performed in public, Mrs Kidner returned her to base in the observation sett. Here humans, entering a dark room, can look through glass panels into three subterranean chambers and watch unseen as the animals go about their business. But from the back of the chambers tunnels lead to the outside world, so that the badgers in residence (four at the moment) are free to come and go as they like.

It was a delight to watch Bluebell, worn out by exposure, settle down for a snooze. First, she lumbered backwards into one of the chambers, dragging an armful of hay, and then she proceeded to make her bed with extraordinary attention to detail.

Hospital corners would have looked clumsy and rough in comparison with the layout she devised. Round and round she went, shoving up the hay and straw with her snout, fluffing it, primping it, until everything was perfectly to her satisfaction. Only then did she curl up in the middle of her nest - and in a few seconds her furry flank had begun to rise and fall in the rhythm of a creature deep asleep.

'The Country Life Guide to Artificial Badger Setts' is available from 7 London Road, Tetbury, Gloucestershire, price pounds 2. Cheques should be made payable to the National Federation of Badger Groups.