THE BADGER family, lured by a trail of treacle and peanuts, have been for a nose around their new estate. They must have been impressed with the sizeable rooms, the en suite facilities, the annexe and the security fence.
They keep coming to have another look. Then they slink back across the flat Worcestershire fields to their old, familiar home, just under half a mile away. Meanwhile, squatters have moved in. Some foxes have taken up residence in the new sett.
'It's not a bad sign that the foxes think it's good enough,' said Will Watson, the environmental field worker who designed and helped to build it. 'The badgers will soon boot them out when the time comes.'
This confrontation, vaguely reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows, is likely to come to pass some time after July when this year's cubs are deemed capable of the move.
It cannot be put off much longer. The sett the badgers now occupy is the subject of a compulsory purchase order. A Yorkshire quarrying company called Tilcon obtained planning permission to excavate this flood meadow in the Severn Valley as long ago as 1989.
But the days have gone when industrialists, developers, farmers or anyone else could legally ride roughshod over the interests of one of the nation's best-loved mammals.
The Badgers Act of 1991 demands that alternative accommodation must be provided. Accordingly, Tilcon has had to wait patiently while paying a team of ecological consultants to move the badgers away from the site with the minimum possible stress.
The Worcestershire project is not unique. Far from it. Penny Cresswell, who runs the Badger Consultancy in Bristol, has built 13 artificial setts all over the UK (including Northern Ireland) in the past 18 months.
'It gives them a running chance of surviving development,' she says. 'It is about the best option they have left. To coax them to stay, though, the artificial setts have to be built to a high specification. Badgers are quite fussy.'
They are also understandably cautious. Those that stray too far from the sett tend to come to a sticky end: more than 47,000 die on the roads every year. Yet staying at home is no guarantee of survival. The illegal digging up of setts for baiting accounts for 10,000 more deaths, says the League Against Cruel Sports. Despite the high mortality rate, there are some 250,000 adult badgers left in Britain according to Christopher Betts, who runs the ecological agency charged with relocating this family.
It is a slow and painstaking process. Dr Betts and his colleagues, including Mr Watson, have spent long hours sitting still and silent in the branches of a young oak tree waiting for the badgers to come out at dusk, in order to study their habits.
'One night there were five of us up there,' Mr Watson recalled as we strode through knee-high wet grass, pausing to investigate the contents of a badger latrine.
We peered into a small hole scraped out of the sandy soil. 'You can tell from their dung that they've been eating earthworms,' he confided. 'That's one of their delicacies.'
Mr Watson has intimately studied the badgers' diet and mapped out their territory. To lure them beyond it, he had to lay a bait of something even more tempting than worms.
Badgers following the peanut-and- treacle trail eventually come to a wire fence designed to keep sheep and large dogs at bay. Beyond it lies a maze of plastic pipework, lined with sand and clay, buried under mounds of earth and landscaped with saplings. The whole site occupies about half an acre.
All mod cons are built in, including a ventilation shaft and drainage. No house-proud badger could ask for more. But Mr Watson concedes that when the time comes to fill in the holes of their old sett, they could still turn up their snouts and go off to dig a new home of their own.
There's no pleasing some badgers.
(Photograph and map omitted)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies