Sunday, 22 December 2013

A Badgers’ Bastion on the Winter Solstice

Another Winter Solstice.  The time of year to reflect and count one’s blessings.  This morning I was up well before dawn to sort out my contribution to the woodland’s inhabitants for this year’s Winter Solstice. The weather was atrocious, squally rain was being delivered wave after wave and the wind was unsettling as it gusted round about the apples I had stored for this occasion, in the shed. They had kept well from this autumn’s harvest. I loaded them into the wheel barrow and wheeled them to the Land Rover, three barrows full in all, leaving another three barrows in the shed store for the snow in January. Once I had loaded the apples, I sorted out my small tent and Captain Scott stove and, as I bundled them into the back of the Land Rover with the apples, a strange excitement started to creep up inside of me, the same excitement that I experience every year with the Summer and Winter Solstice.  I could hardly wait for night.
My school days were blighted with truancy. I drove my parents to despair as I would always sooner fish or go rabbiting, anything bar being inside. The weather to me not mattering what it was doing as I always looked upon it as more of a friend than an enemy.  I adored the elements and although, I never made any great shakes of myself, I have been blessed with happiness which is due to no small part to nature and the majesty and magic to be found within it. 
When my children were growing up and I had endeavoured to show them all the wonders that had captivated me when I was their age, I liked to hear nothing more than “you’re amazing dad,” as they held a young leveret or an injured roe deer.  A love of nature that they have grown up with and I feel sure will last with them a life time.
Jackie shouted out of the back door, “the Coopers want to be with you when you deliver the apples, they’re on their way over.”
“Ok I will be in soon,” was my reply.
Badgers are a member of the Mustelidae family which includes weasels, pine martins, stoats and otters.  Their territory is normally 1km square, give or take, depending on how plentiful the food supply is.  The thing that baffled me as a kid was that I used to see badgers (and still do now) mate pretty much all through the year but their cubs are always born at the same time normally within the first two weeks of February.  This is down to a process called ‘delayed implantation.’ The fertilised egg does not implant in the womb and does not develop until late October/ early November. Gestation is around 12 weeks and litters consist normally of 2 to 3 cubs. The Winter Solstice is a time to energise, not just the badger, but all natures’ wonders for the gruelling time ahead. Winter will show no mercy, pregnant or otherwise.
The Coopers duly arrived.  As I fought my way into the kitchen through the door, which the roaring wind was doing its level best to rip off its hinges, I was greeted with two very stern looking faces.  “Why the glumness?” I asked.
“The Boxing Day hunt is taking in The Horn and part of The Tiger forest.”  My face, I’m sure, was as glum looking as theirs once these words had passed their lips.  This land hadn’t been hunted for many years, certainly not since the banning of foxhunting under the last Labour government.  This was very near Beech Wyn and although the badgers there would be safe enough, Dini, the fox was the problem as he was lately spending all of his time with the badgers up around the sett. 
As we drank the last of our tea Jackie put the question to the Coopers. “Could you have a word with Lord Foxton?”
“We have,” they both replied, “and he’s of the mind, each to their own and there are higher authorities than himself that want the Boxing Day hunt around this part of the Cotswolds. 
“There are drinks tonight at our cottage, can you make it?” asked the Coopers looking at both myself and Jackie.
“Oh that’s a shame, why didn’t you ask sooner?  We have accepted a drinks invitation down in the village.”
As Jackie and the Coopers chit chatted, my sole narrative was about Dini and my mind was going forty to the dozen on just how we were going to overcome this awful situation. 
“Let’s get off then,” I said.  I got the Coopers up into the Land Rover and we were soon dispersing the apples around Beech Wyn.  As I was putting up my tent in gale force winds, the Coopers hammered in the pegs and chuntered on all the time about how they weren’t allowed to stay outside in a tent, and yet here they were helping to put one up for me.  They would have given anything to be out with me, up with the badgers on the Winter Solstice but age was their greatest leveller and they realised it was far too wet and cold for them and no longer pursued it. We made everything good and safe.  I put the Captain Scott stove into the tent along with the kettle and teabags and I was now working on my excuses for the drinks party on how I could leave early. 
Howling wind rocked the assembled tent as we all looked around the badger sett. The Coopers asked if I still saw as much of Dini now that all the leaves had fallen.
“I see him every day,” I replied.
“It’s a darn nuisance they are hunting The Horn and part of The Tiger after all of these years. Do you think they will flush Dini out?”
“I’d lay money on it.  He’s been up here a number of years now so the scent is strong, but my overriding concern is this Badger Bastion.  It must be kept secret, nobody must know of its whereabouts.”
“Quite, quite,” agreed the Coopers.  “Have you any ideas for Boxing Day?”
“I’ve got one contingency plan for just such an occasion, but I will need your help to implement it.”
“Anything, anything at all Allan,” responded the Coopers enthusiastically, pleased that they were being involved in some small way.  “I will give you a ring with the finer details.”
“How exciting,” they were just like two big kids, but with them being on my side, I felt that I could do anything.
We were soon back in the Land Rover heading for home.  I dropped them off at their cottage, apologised to them on not being able to make their drinks party, but we would get together for a drink over the Christmas period.   This seemed to please them no end.
Once home, a quick change and off Jackie and myself with the kids down to Cheltenham for a spot of Christmas shopping.  A quick calculation at the number of people and the amount of parcels they were carrying, the country’s month of December GDP was certainly going to be up.  George Osborne’s economic predictions looked to be bearing fruit.  Cheltenham was a hive of activity, buzzing with the Christmas spirit.  It was a delightful day. 
Once home the talk was now of tonight’s drinks party. 7:30pm and we were toddling down to the village in the dark, stars shining brightly in the sky in abundance but the wind was still strong.  As we looked back to our house, the Christmas lights were being pounded against the side of the house.  We felt that the lights were getting ever nearer to destruction with each raging force of wind.  Soon we were in the throng of people at the drinks party.  Talk was of Christmas, on the children’s university and college life and general well meaningness. By 9:30pm my thoughts were solely on the Winter Solstice and on the excuse that I was going to make to enable me to leave this merry group.  My thoughts were then answered in the form of the Coopers.  A night cap with them. No one would surely doubt that. 
Jackie and the kids knew where I would be this Winter Solstice, the same place where I have been on every Summer and Winter Solstice so far, out with nature counting my blessings. 
I thanked the host for their hospitality, wished everyone a happy Christmas, whispered to Jackie and the kids that I would see them in the morning and I was soon making my way up the hill towards home.  Once home I changed again into my outdoor clothes and picking up a can of cider to toast my beloved badgers I was soon on my way out and within a few minutes I was walking across the fields, down alongside the hedgerows on my way to my vacant tent up at the badger sett.  The wind was blowing hard, the rain was the same squally rain that was present this morning while we were dispersing the apples.  Although the weather was anything but good, I knew that I was out on the Solstice.  The shortest day, the same as the June longest day, there is something so very special and humbling about a Solstice night. 
Once into Beech Wyn, I made my way through the Beech and Ash trees to my tent which was weathering the storm very well indeed, it was still up anyway.  There were a couple of badgers out and about along with a couple of Roe deer and a munkjack who had found the apples.  I struck up the Captain Scott’s stove and put the kettle on.  The kettle was soon whistling.  A cup of tea is a most settling, satisfying drink.  The wind was roaring outside the tent, rippling the canvas and at times making a sharp smacking noise.  As I sat inside the tent thinking about the forth coming Boxing Day hunt my mind went back to the summer, the day Mozart’s Magic Flute was born.  A day of torrential rain and I could still hear the mauling groans of the bobcat as it pushed these boulders into position into this bank using nature’s hard elements with the sole aim of trying to protect a most delicate, fragile eco system.  The success was beyond my wildest dreams. Quite an impregnable fortress from my biggest badger fear; badger baiters.  It is said by people who know far more than I that approximately forty five thousand badgers are killed every year on our roads and eight to nine thousand badgers are killed by badger baiters.  These numbers fill me with horror and disgust in equal measures.   The time quickly moved on it was two minutes to midnight.  I took my can of cider and left the snugness of the tent.  I was soon being attacked by the wind and the squally, showery rain which had now progressed into a more business like rain, purposeful, deliberate driving rain.  The type of rain that, if you let it, gets into your bones.  And then from behind one of the boulders along came Old Daddy Cool with one of his cubs from this year.  On seeing him I raised my drink, “To your health old friend, you have done so well to get your family to this Winter Solstice.  I look forward to toasting you again next year on the Summer Solstice.”
I looked at the cub that was with him, he looked nice and plump and round.  The most difficult time for a badger is its first winter, but Daddy Cool and his missus had done their cubs well.  Their territory was a good one, it had served them all with plenty, but when you hear the disturbing news by Defra that there will be a further four years of this brutal badger cull I can’t help thinking that times are going to get harder and my work spent in the summer creating this Badger Bastion is one of the best jobs I have ever done.


A supplement to the diet of the woodland inhabitants, birds, squirrels, rabbits, deer, munkjack and badgers.

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