Nature is always awe inspiring. She always has the ability to show grimace as well as breath-taking charm and has always managed without effort to keep me enthralled throughout the whole of my life. I truly believe the real value of an acre of land is the wildlife that can be sustained within it and this can so often be of no profit at all to the landowner or farmer but absolutely priceless to the most enlightening force on this earth, Nature.
As the valleys get more and more flooded the voles and the moles and all the small mammals have been moving to higher ground. The river meadows, the feeding grounds of the Barn owls and the Long-eared owls have been left empty of the owl sustenance. They can now be seen hunting the hedgerows more and more. Their diversifying behaviour on exploring new hunting grounds to counter balance these almost biblical like down pours is totally inspiring. This winter it has gone on and on and this January has been the wettest January on record. Since just after Christmas I have noticed the rats in particular move in to the woodlands in ever increasing numbers. The saying goes, ‘no one being is ever further than three yards away from a rat.’
February, arguably the most important month for the badger. Any time from the middle of February new badger life is borne into the woodlands. And as I watched them mid-week, geed up with the news that Shell Oil is pulling out of oil exploration in the Antarctic, the number of rats that were visible around the badger sett seemed quite alarming. I noticed the build-up more so this last couple of weeks. It seemed to me the more it rained the more rats were apparent. Dini the fox didn’t seem to be making much headway in the reduction of numbers which was hardly surprising as the female badgers had fanned out through this hardwood woodland to form their own setts to make ready for their own expectant cubs. From Daddy Cool’s throne in the North of the woodland to the flooded river meadows to the raging rivers to the South, to me sat here, Dini’s territory seemed huge. The Tawny owls, the Long-eared owls, the Barn owls were taking the small rats but the big ones were still very much in evidence.
Daddy Cool, the master of the outfit, the protector, seemed perplexed. The odd rat around a badger sett was nothing new, but these numbers I could see he was finding difficult to comprehend and was noticeably uncomfortable with the situation. Daddy Cool, along with a few females would run at the rats, almost trying in a futile way to disperse them. To me as an onlooker having witnessed the situation get worse, I started to feel concerned for rats in these numbers, if push comes to shove, would, when opportunity arises would be down in the setts and devour the baby badgers. For that scenario to take place, all that would be needed is, to endure a prolonged cold snap forcing the mother badger out of the sett for food leaving her cubs vulnerable to the rats’ devices.
One must never intervene with nature because generally speaking nature is even handed. I remember from years gone by when people weren’t as environmentally savvy as they are today and to protect young trees from squirrel damage landowners would bait the bottom of some trees with rat poison. The desired effect was always met, it ended the squirrel damage within a weeks or so but along with it, it annihilated everything else within that woodland. The reduction of our raptors, the Barn owls becoming almost extinct in certain areas, was down solely to the mismanaged use of rat poison. Once a rat or mouse has had rat poison it makes him dozy, sluggish, and looking for water and so an animal that is normally, solely nocturnal is seen in the daytime often around a puddle of water having to quench his thirst. Once the rats and mice has broken cover looking for water that is when they become fair game for all of nature’s predators.
I have always stood against poisons in every form. They should only be ever used in the most exacting of circumstances, if used at all under license.
The badger cull of 2013 did untold damage to our badger population and I like to think nature has responded to this by giving the badger the kindest winter I can ever remember in forty years of studying badgers. The badgers are in peak condition but the down side of this, the woodland is now being overrun with rats while escaping this deluge of rain.
As I sat in my hide watching the events unfold, a munkjack then came into view. He too looked thoroughly unsettled with the rat situation. A lot of the rabbits appeared also to have moved on, and there was a sense of anticipation, a sense of surprise, almost suspense as the rain again started to fall onto this already sodden ground. Daddy Cool had made his rounds of the woodland, the other badgers had been on their foraging missions, but this night, it was as if they were waiting for an answer from nature to help relieve them from this intolerable plight.
As I sat quietly watching, a couple of rats played the age old game of round and round the mulberry bush and then everything stopped. The rain was still falling steadily and I expected to see Dini the fox for the rats’ behaviour was that of fright. I sat there in total stillness and silence, a couple of minutes passed and then it was as if the darkness curtain had been lifted from the woodland and there right in front of me was the lone spur, nature’s very own Piped Piper of Hamlyn, the Polecat. On seeing him, I could hear my heart sing for nature had sent the equalizer. Soon normality would once again be the order of the day throughout the woodland. Daddy Cool’s calls had been answered.
When one watches a fox on his ratting mission you witness nature’s poetry, its elegance, its prowess, its cunning, its skill, truly mesmerising. But when you witness the ratting technique of a polecat, stoat or weazle you see a master class. Brutality, power, nature’s Exocet missile, a true heat seeker that once on its prey will stop at nothing until his jaws are locked in a vice-like grip on its prey. If its prey burrows so will the polecat, if its prey climbs so will the polecat, if its prey swims, so will the polecat, if its prey runs so will the polecat and it will run and run and run until it totally exhausts its prey. A polecat can cover two miles and still kill in the same exactly measured brutal zero tolerance fashion as if it had just awoken from a relaxing sleep.
I found it quite amazing for polecats have become very rare and are seldom seen in the wild due to years of persecution. The Victorians used to pay a halfpenny per rat tail to the old ratters of London town. If this same bounty was given to the polecat he would be the richest animal in the countryside. Mother Nature seemed to me to be squarely behind the badger, pitting her wits to enable to sustain and stabilize a decreasing badger population, and once again didn’t hesitate to pick up the gauntlet on the badgers’ behalf.
Please watch my short film, Badgers' Own Piped Piper of Hamlyn
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