by J.C. Bristow Noble
BADGERS have been hunted in Sussex for centuries, and the interesting animals always seem to have been fairly plentiful in the county. Up to the War almost all districts were being covered by the Kent and Sussex Badger Club, founded by the late Captain Philip Huth, of Wadhurst Hall, near Tunbridge Wells, and conducted by him for some years, and then by Mr. W. Baker, who is now master of a similar club in Devonshire. With the advent of the War the club came to an end, and although it has not been revived, the old sport still goes merrily on, several sportsmen conducting semi-private clubs in the districts of their homes.
Once, it would seem, the Sussex method of hunting the animals was to go out after dark with a few terriers and wait patiently in the branches of trees near the badgers’ homes till it was concluded the creatures had gone into the surrounding country to feed. Strongly-made sacks were then placed in the entrances to the holes, with the mouths propped open, and nooses of stout rope running through brass rings round the mouths. Then the terriers were released, and picking up the badgers’ scent, hunted them back to their homes and into the sacks, the mouths of which, as the animals plunged in the bottom of the bags, closed behind them.
It seems to have been important to waft down wind and not nearer to the sett-the badger’s home is called a sett, not an earth-than a hundred yards or thereabouts, and at a spot unlikely to be visited by Brock; also it seems to have been important not to go out later than about nine o’clock, or the badgers might have been out feeding already, and might have heard or scented the approach of the hunters and instantly fled to the sett, not to leave it again before another night.
Most important of all, was to keep quiet. The cracking of a twig, a whimper from one of the dogs, and words spoken in a loud whisper, were often enough to ruin the prospects of a run and the bagging of a badger or two.
Delightful was this old-fashioned hunting, and all that a sport should be, that is, uncertain, humane, exciting at intervals and always interesting. The quiet of the night, the shrill music of the terriers as they ran on Brock’s line, or occasionally came up with him and held him at bay, the difficulty with which the dogs were followed across field and down and through wood and copse, and finally, Brock plunging and snorting in the bag, and the tramp home in the “small wee hours,” combined to make the hunt a pleasant topic of conversation for many a day afterwards.
Even at that time few of the badgers that were caught seem to have been killed, but to have been given their liberty again either in the same district or in one where the animals were scarce.
The method of the modern badger hunter is to hunt the animal in the tunnels of his always interesting home, or, in other words, to dig him out of his sett. The digging is carried on to the bark of terriers. The duties of the dogs are to go into the sett, locate the badgers, lie within a few feet of them, and bark incessantly, but not attack, and to come out when exhausted. The terrier that attacks and does not throw tongue is useless, and one that barks only at long intervals is little better.
The recognized season for the sport is from the middle of April till the end of October. By the second week of the former month the badger cubs are well grown and the terriers are not likely to harm them, and by October the different families are breaking up and the members are pairing and beginning to make preparations for the reception of their own young in the new year.
The badger, as a rule, has her cubs between the second week of January and the middle of February, but this depends largely on the weather. If a cold spell, with snow and frost, intervenes, she will sometimes delay the interesting event, which she has the power to do, till perhaps the first or second week in March.
In which month or months of the year the badgers mate, and what is the exact period of gestation, nobody seems to be able to speak with certainty. I, myself, think the animals pair chiefly in November and that the sows carry for twelve weeks and a few days, that is, of course, under normal circumstances.
The badgers that are taken, as I have intimated, are very rarely killed. When at last they are dug up to-which may be at the end of a few hours or a few days-they are tailed, a far from easy thing to do, and put into strong sacks.
There then follow two very important little ceremonies-that is, important in the eyes of the enthusiastic badger hunter-the weighing of the badgers and then taking them to some open space, rolling them softly out of the sacks and watching them make their way into the nearest dense cover.
Mrs. Brock keeps pace with the little ones, if there are any. Mr. Brock invariably runs as fast as he can, his pretty coat bristled and his small, dark eyes flaming with indignation.
The family love the neighbour-hood of their birth, so although the old home may be gone, they do not, as might be thought, migrate to another locality, but either dig another sett on the site of the former or one in its vicinity.
The sport may sound profitless and rather dull, but such in reality is by no means the case. The exploration of the sett alone is well worth all the hard digging, the work of the terriers is a never failing source of interest, and, finally, there is the joy of being in the open air far from the beaten tracks with congenial companions and nature.
Never more than two terriers at a time are allowed in a sett, and a beginning is made with two of the most experienced dogs. They are never long in finding the quarry if it is to be found. Presently, those who are listening at the mouths of the several holes or are lying with their ears to the ground, hear a faint barking.
Where to begin to open the sett is often a problem, and invariably there are a few false starts before the diggers find themselves progressing in the right direction.
The badger, or badgers, often come forward, fearlessly face the dogs and periodically charge them with the greatest ferocity. But the experienced terrier is far too cautious to allow himself to be bitten and mauled. As the badger rushes towards him with a sort of grunt, he springs back to a safe distance.
This sort of thing will go on until the dogs are so exhausted that they can barely stand. They then creep into the open air, and two more take their place. No time is lost in slipping the latter, for unless Brock’s attention is held he will often dig himself in deeper, a pretty serious matter if the soil is light, for in this case the rate at which he gets through it would not disgrace a mole. Occasionally, whilst a boar holds off the terriers, a sow tunnels and the dig is lengthened by hours.
The ideal weight for a badger terrier is 14 lb. Terriers above this weight are rightly regarded as too clumsy and powerful. They are often seriously injured, and though unable to harm a full grown badger, they can make short work of a twelve weeks’ cub.
I have already referred to the interest of the sett. If above a few years old, it will consist of tunnel after tunnel, one on the top of another, like stories in a large building; it has few exits compared with the number of tunnels; it occasionally winds over a space of several square yards and often descends to a depth of twelve feet or more.
Some of the passages are so large that a man can crawl along them in comfort, and all are beautifully domed and connected with one another. One also finds a few large, round chambers, usually called “ovens,” in which two or three men can sit. Each seems to be used for a different purpose. There are at least a couple of bedrooms, a dining-room, and an office for domestic purposes. Often during the progress of a dig I have seen stores unearthed acorns, crab-apples, walnuts and nuts. The good things have come tumbling out of little recesses in the walls of the tunnels and ovens.
The nests in which the young are born are enormous. Half a cart load of dead bracken, leaves and grass give a fair estimation of their size. I have never found more than five, or less than three cubs, but I have been told of as many as seven being brought to light. My opinion, however, is that a litter never exceeds five, and that three is the average number. The interesting little things are born naked, blind and deaf and with a skin of a bluish shade. In comparison with their parents, whose weights may be anything from 24 to 40 lb., the babies are, indeed, tiny. The largest is only about four inches in length. But let a week pass and one hardly recognizes them. They are a good two inches longer, their eyes are opening, and they have a growth of coarse, wiry hair. A little later all the familiar characteristics are present-the silver-grey coat, the white tips to the black ears, the black under the muzzle, the black markings on the white face. One litter a year is the rule, but if the badger loses her new year babies shortly after their birth she will sometimes have a second litter towards the end of the summer.
The cubs play like a family of pigs : that is, by fits and starts A rush, a few grunts and snorts, a few charges and snaps, and the game is over. The young ones, as I have partly explained, keep with their parents till the autumn. The latter then compel them to go out into the world and make homes for themselves.
In conclusion, it is safe to prophesy that as long as the interesting old sport survives, we shall have badgers on the Downs and in our woodlands. But once it comes to an end most certainly and, alas ! the badgers are doomed. The gamekeepers will speedily put an end to their existence.