Exactly 110 years after Wind in the Willows how is Mr Badger faring in Suffolk?
PUBLISHED: 22:28 23 June 2018 | UPDATED: 22:42 23 June 2018
The publication of Wind in the Willows in 1908 caused a whole nation to look more favourably on badgers. Exactly 110 years on to the month, Ross Bentley talks to expert Adrian Hinchcliffe to find out how badgers are faring in 21st century Suffolk.
According to nature writer Patrick Barkham, the publication of one story book did more to change British attitudes towards badgers than any other single event or initiative.
That book is Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which was published 110 years ago this month.
The Edwardian classic introduced children and adults alike to Mole, Ratty, Toad and Mr Badger – characters that have entered into our communal psyche.
In his wonderful book ‘Badgerlands’ Barkham writes: “Kenneth Grahame offered an entirely new portrait of a despised, feared and, at best, pitied wild animal. Grahame kindled a romance with the badger that endured throughout the twentieth century and changed relations between men, women and badgers for good.”
It was from this point, opines Barkham, that the centuries of badger persecution - the baiting and culling - started to gradually tail off until recent times when the fears about badgers spreading TB among cattle has led to the reintroduction of badger culls in certain parts of the country.
So, exactly one century and a decade after the release of Wind in the Willows, how is Mr Badger faring in our region?
To get a good idea there is no-one better to ask than Adrian Hinchliffe, badger co-ordinator for the Suffolk Mammal Group.
Together with 40 or so other dedicated volunteers Adrian’s work sees him get involved in all manner of badger-related issues - from collating the number of badgers killed on Suffolk’s roadsides to helping return orphaned badgers to the wild. Several years ago he advised the BBC team based at RSPB Minsmere for the popular Springwatch programme.
In the time since the publication of Wind in the Willows badgers have benefitted from increasing levels of protection - most recently the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 which makes it an offence in England and Wales to wilfully kill, injure or take a badger.
This has led to a rise in the badger population and Adrian says today there are around 1,000 known setts in Suffolk.
But while some threats to badgers have dissipated, others have loomed larger.
Road traffic has become a major threat to badgers in this region with over 200 road deaths reported each year. This is a marked contrast from the early 1990s when only around 20 dead roadside badgers were reported.
“Some of this increase is due to technology - it’s much easier for people to report carcasses because they have mobile phones and e-mail which weren’t around then,” said Adrian, who says there are spikes in the level of badger roadkill - in March and April after the female badgers have given birth and are ready to breed again and in September when the sows born the previous year come into season for the first time.
“The males are locked into the scent of a sow and so intent on finding them that they will cross a road and not notice the cars,” he added.
Where possible volunteers will examine the carcass of a badger on the road. In the rare instance they find a dead female that is still lactating there is a good chance there will be young badger cubs at a nearby sett. The group’s knowledge of the whereabouts of setts has helped them rescue orphans in the past.
Human activity in the form of housing development is another threat badgers face in 21st Suffolk. If a sett is situated on land earmarked for development, Adrian’s team will help ascertain any mitigation measures the developers will have to put in place or if it is possible to relocate that clan of badgers.
This work might include finding out whether badgers in a nearby sett are of the same clan, in which case they might take in their neighbours.
“Badgers use their sense of smell a great deal and leave piles of dung in small pits around the boundary to their territory as a warning to intruders,” continued Adrian.
“We put green pellets in food at one sett and yellow pellets in food at another and if, as a result we find dung heaps at the setts where there is a mix of different coloured pellets we know that badgers from the two setts are interacting.”
This is all part of the good work Adrian and his colleagues do but not all their call-outs are positive.
Unfortunately, despite protective legislation, Adrian says some persecution of badgers persists. He details several harrowing personal experiences of finding injured badgers in snares or rescuing maimed animals taken from the wild.
In his time Adrian has come across setts that have been ploughed over, gassed with cyanide, and targeted with apples stuffed with paracetamol left at the entrance of a sett.
Talking to Adrian, you get a fascinating insight into the unusual connection badgers have with other wild animals.
He says badgers have an asymmetric intraguild predatory relationship with hedgehogs,
“For three months I videoed badgers happily sharing food with hedgehogs at a local sett,” continued Adrian.
“The hedgehog looked very relaxed despite the fact that badgers will take hedgehogs if there is a shortage of other food.
“It’s the same with rabbits - if there is little else around, badgers have been known to dig down into warrens to take their young but in other instances rabbits will share a sett with badgers.”
This mixed picture is all down to badgers being “opportunistic omnivores” says Adrian.
He continued: “They aren’t like foxes that hunt things. Badgers bumble along and eat anything they come across from nuts and grains to blackberries and plums. But earthworms make up around 60% of their diet - you often see them foraging in grass strips and near reed beds looking for worms, beetles and slugs.
“On a good worm night you can see them going along slurping up worms like spaghetti.”