A fascinating insight into the badger’s world. Badger biology, life in the sett, rescue & rehabilitation, consultancy, badgers & farming, and badger-watching with George Pearce – an expert on badgers.
George has surveyed over 700 sites, visited 1,500 setts, been consulted as an expert in 120 animal cruelty cases and rehabilitated more than 100 badgers. Brought up on a farm, he earned his living as a farmer for 45 years. Today, he is a badger consultant and one of the foremost experts on the British mammal he admires the most.
For many years, the RSPCA, police, veterinary surgeons and conservation groups all over the country have relied on George Pearce’s knowledge and his instinctive feel for animal behaviour. Now you can share in his experience and enthusiasm for badgers from his 70 years of badger watching and his vast professional wildlife experience.
About the Author
George Pearce, who died in 2015, surveyed over 700 sites, visited 1,500 setts, was consulted as an expert in 120 animal cruelty cases and rehabilitated more than 100 badgers. Brought up on a farm, he earned his living as a farmer for 45 years.
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A lifetime's experience
Allow me first to set the scene. How did George E. Pearce, farmer's boy turned pig breeder, become a badger consultant? It was definitely not a role I had planned, dreamed about or ever thought I would fill. In effect, I grew into it, with fate (in the guise of plummeting pig prices and rising animal feed costs) giving me rather more than a gentle nudge.
I do not have a college degree or any written qualifications – my classroom was the countryside, and my teachers were the animals themselves. Over 70 years, I have watched and watched, and watched some more, and my studies were the thousands of hours I put into observing badgers in all sorts of locations and in every kind of weather, from the hottest July evening to -9 °C in January. I have lost count of the times I have sat through the night at a sett, the times I have tracked badgers as they left their setts to forage, and the early mornings when I have waited for dawn to break to watch them troop back. In all those years, I have seen badgers grow from cubs to adults, seen setts grow, decline, fall into a state of decay and then come alive again. I have spent countless hours acquiring field-craft and tracking skills: I have dissected badger droppings; carried out autopsies; rescued snare victims; worked with the police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) to bring baiters and diggers to justice; and worked alongside my wife Cris and my children to rehabilitate injured and orphaned badgers. I helped to launch the Shropshire Badger Group and in all sorts of ways, put my long years of stockmanship to good use in learning more about and helping this rarely seen, and often misunderstood, creature.
Farming was my work, badger and fox watching was my hobby, but suddenly it all changed. Pig farmers (unlike those in grain, beef, sheep and dairy cattle) have never had the support of significant subsidies from the European Economic Community (EEC) and when feed prices shot up and low-cost imports increased, pig farming of the kind that I was involved in (high-quality pigs reared not in iron cages but in open pens on deep straw) ceased to be profitable.
In December 1990 I decided to cut my losses and get out – a worrying and stressful decision and a personal milestone for Cris and myself. The future looked bleak. I was a farmer and Cris was also born on a farm, so what else could I do? My heart was in my boots. By chance, the answer came out of the blue not long afterwards. I was often in the company of an RSPCA Chief Superintendent and chatting one day about farming problems, he said, "Well, George, whatever happens, you are never going to be short of work with the knowledge you have of the countryside, wildlife and caring for animals. Why not set yourself up as a badger consultant?" I said, "Don't be such a fool. Who on earth is going to employ me for work like that? I might get one day a month." "Think about it," he said, "you've got a lot to offer. Besides, what else could you do half as well? And what else would you enjoy doing half as much?" So, I thought about it and decided it was worth a try. He could see the
possibilities and perhaps he was right and I had nothing to lose. So, I took the plunge. My early days as a consultant were anxious ones. How much work would there be? What type of problems would come my way? My first job started when I received a telephone call from a well-known construction company carrying out redevelopment work in Birmingham. They had come across a series of large holes in a derelict railway siding and not knowing what to do, they had rung the RSPCA and spoken to Chief Superintendent Austin. He asked them if they had injured any animals and they said no, so he said, "This is nothing to do with us, but I know a man who can help you," and so he gave them my telephone number.
Shortly afterwards, the British Waterways Board asked me for help where badgers had been digging into the canal embankments. Then I had one or two cases where badgers were undermining roads. Next, a large national house building company contacted me, followed by many others including a quarry company. That led to a lot of survey work and my work seemed to mushroom. I was called in by the Highways Agency and Glamorgan County Council, again for work to do with new roads. Developers also by now were beginning to contact me, as they had badgers on their sites. Unfortunately, on most of the sites, they were calling me in after the work had started. It has taken a number of years to change that, so that I am now usually called in prior to construction starting, often two years in advance, at the very early stages of planning.
All of my work has come through word of mouth and personal recommendation – I find that heartening. Working seven days a week has always been my lifestyle, so it does not present a problem when the demand for my services results in a 70–80 hour week and in fact, I offer a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week service. I hope and believe that I do the job well, sensibly and professionally; protecting the badger in the face of inevitable change and helping well-motivated developers honour their obligations. Calling me in to sort out a problem costs developers money, but the other side of that coin is that bad advice can cost them thousands of pounds more and indirectly it can cause badgers all sorts of avoidable long-term problems. What is most important is that the advice must be independent, objective and free of bias. The onus is on the consultant to get it right, as he is financially liable if the wrong advice is given.
As luck would have it, my decision to get out of farming roughly coincided with the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 coming into force. The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 is an Act to consolidate the Badgers Act 1973, the Badgers Act 1991 and the Badgers (Further Protection) Act 1991. This law created a need for people who knew the ways of badgers, where they lived, fed and bred, and how best their needs could be accommodated in the face of relentless change: constant development in towns, villages and on the land.
That, basically, is how I made the change. Thanks to a combination of personal and national factors, George E. Pearce the volunteer, the enthusiast, became George E. Pearce, full-time independent badger consultant, beholden to no-one, but commissioned by developers, architects, ecologists, public utilities, construction companies and many more to carry out field surveys, give advice and construct practical solutions to 'badger problems'. I put that phrase in quotes because it depends, as they say, where you are coming from. Is it the badger that is the problem or is it the development?
Marooned: a bundle of badgers
Before I tell you about some of my experiences working virtually full-time with badgers, let me take you back to 1993 and to an incident that will live with me forever. I feel very privileged to have been part of it, for it really was extraordinary, as I hope you will agree.
Where the River Severn and the River Vyrnwy meet, close to where I live, their banks were overflowing after days of rain, and the local floodplain, the first piece of low-lying land that the gushing torrents of water from the hills of mid Wales can spill into, was around 90% full. It was quite a sight – floodwaters covered an area approximately fourteen miles long by three miles wide. I had often wondered what happened to ground-living mammals on this floodplain, where they took refuge and whether they always survived, for in wet years some would have to leave their homes and find alternative shelter five or six times a year.
It was early December and about mid-afternoon when I received a telephone call from the RSPCA. They asked if I could go to a farm close to the River Vyrnwy, as they had received a report that some badgers were marooned on what had become an island. The RSPCA couldn't get there themselves as they were busy rescuing sheep from the flood on another farm at Machynlleth in west Wales. I said, of course I would go, knowing that because of the floods, I would have to make many detours to reach the area.
The area is one I know well. At that time, it had 12 main badger setts on the land, which by now was under water, and I recalled that one of the setts was close to a hollow tree that the badgers headed for in floods. As I reached the farm, the flood-waters were still rising and I wondered whether, in two or three hours' time, I would be able to make it back home. The farmer met me and we made our way across waterlogged fields to the point where floodwaters were spilling over the local flood defence system, called an 'argae' in this part of the world. The top of the argae was three metres above the land that normally harboured the badgers, so we knew that in front of us was a huge wall of water held back only by the argae, which was already leaking like a sieve, with water spouting everywhere. On reflection, it was a potentially dangerous situation for us, let alone for the badgers, but at the time our concern was for the animals rather than for ourselves. The badgers were marooned on a spit of land no more than 80 m by 30 m, and which was just 20 cm above the floodwaters. Earlier that morning, the farmer had counted 11 of them and concerned for their safety, he had then called the RSPCA. I borrowed a pair of chest waders from National River Authority (NRA) staff, who were also at the scene, desperately trying to plug leaks in the flood defences. We knew that this was a truly exceptional flood, the worst in 50 years, and I was grateful that the farmer, who knew every inch of the land, was on hand to guide me to the shallowest areas as I made my way slowly towards the island.
As I neared this tiny spit of land, I saw something that was almost beyond belief. There were 11 badgers, two huddled at the foot of an elder tree, four were some 60 cm above ground, wedged between a wire fence and the tree trunk, and two more were up in the canopy of the tree some 2.5 m above the ground. Just a metre or so away were three more, in the bottom of a hedge. Oddly, all seemed very relaxed; in fact, so far as I could tell, most of them (including those balanced rather precariously up in the tree) were asleep! Astonished, I waded back and talked the situation over with the farmer and with a wildlife officer for the NRA. I also rang a local vet and discussed the matter with him.
We were concerned, which was more than you could say for the badgers, snoozing away in their unaccustomed makeshift home. The weather was mild, it was already late afternoon, and darkness was looming. We felt it was best to leave them where they were as they would probably swim to dry land and make their way to other setts on higher ground. As we made our way along the top of the argae, back to the farm, it was now pitch black. We had no torches, but we picked our way carefully through heavy waterlogged clay, doing our best to avoid water-filled hollows. There was water all around us and I was becoming increasingly concerned as to how I would get home. I had only a small car and the lanes were very narrow, undulating and awash, but I had to try. The first mile was a nightmare. In some places the water was level with the bottom of the car and it was the devil's own job to keep away from the verges, which I knew were bordered by deep ditches. Somehow, I made it without incident and, as I tumbled into bed, I wondered what the next day would bring for me and for the badgers.
The following day was bright and sunny and as I arrived at the flood banks there was no sign of the badgers on the island. I felt relieved: they had probably made it to higher ground during the night. The NRA staff had also arrived and once more I borrowed a pair of chest waders and pushed my way through the floodwaters, which were over a metre deep. As I got closer to the elder tree, I was greeted by a sight that will live forever in my memory. In front of me was a huge ball of badgers, half a metre above ground level, wedged between the wire fence and the tree trunk. Amazingly, they weren't in any distress – quite the contrary, they were asleep, their breathing synchronised! I had never seen a sight like it, nor read of anything remotely similar. I assumed there were nine badgers in the ball, as there were two fast asleep on a limb in the treetop. I stopped and pondered what to do. The weather was mild and the badgers were, to say the least, laid back and showed no hint of distress. Badgers under stress emit a strong smell from their scent glands and I could smell nothing amiss. They were sleeping normally, and one could almost hazard a guess that they were enjoying the novelty of being flooded out of their homes.
The following day I was back once more. The flood levels had fallen and there were no NRA staff, but I should be able (or so I thought) to wade across without much difficulty in my wellies. Fat chance! Soon they were full of icy-cold, crystal-clear Welsh water, and in no time I was up to my waist in water. In conditions like that you don't hang about, so I waded past the point which I knew contained one of their setts and quickly reached the island. The badgers were in exactly the same position as before, but I was concerned as the weather had changed and it was now very cold. How much longer could they survive like that, I wondered? I asked the NRA to arrange for the farmer to take 20 bales of straw across to the island in his boat, as these would make a shelter of sorts for the badgers. I also took a bag of dry dog food, as they would need something to eat, some source of energy, for they had already spent a considerable time above ground. I left them with the food and shelter and headed home, hoping that they would find both the food and the straw and make good use of them in my absence.
On Day 4 I approached the island very cautiously, expecting the badgers to be enjoying the warmth of the bales. To my surprise, they had chosen to sleep up in the tree and so far as I could tell, hadn't made use of the straw, although they had eaten a large quantity of dog food. In fact, it looked as though a herd of pigs had hit the island, as every square metre of ground had been foraged and I have never seen so many badger paw prints in such a small area.
Day 5 came and went, and again no change. I wrote in my diary, "These badgers really do have a mind of their own."
Day 6. I scanned the island – no badgers in sight. I approached carefully, fully expecting to find them buried in the straw. I removed one bale cautiously. Nothing. No badgers. No disturbance. They had at last left the island. I looked around and found paw prints at the water's edge. These showed they had not left in the direction I had arrived from, but had chosen a more direct route to a series of large clumps of overgrown hedgerows, which meant a swim of some 90–100 m, through floodwater up to 3 m deep in parts. I followed their route, reached the hedges and from there it was the easiest bit of badger tracking I have ever experienced. There was mud, mud everywhere and lots of large prints. The badgers had made 14 attempts to excavate a new sett in double quick time along a total length of about 400 m of hedgerow. Five of the setts had struck water as the badgers dug down and so had to be abandoned, but the other nine were relatively dry. I realised that they had chosen ground where their tunnels were still about a metre above the water table. They didn't need me any more, so I moved off very relieved and pleased that they had survived their flood ordeal.
I was keen to keep watch on these badgers, so I returned every two weeks to monitor and note what had happened. Throughout January, there was little obvious activity. In February, things changed and large areas of grassland were dug up as they searched for earthworms. In March, much to my surprise, they were back in their old sett – the one that had been so totally sub merged. I thought it would take until July at least before it was dry enough for them to reoccupy it. A few months later, I paid another visit and noted that at least 18 of the 33 entrances were active and I was interested to see that their makeshift straw-bale sett was gradually being dismantled and taken under ground. It was a rare opportunity for them to have such a lot of bedding material available and they weren't going to miss out. By April, all the straw had disappeared and so, too, had the string that held the bales together. The sett was a hive of activity and in May I saw three cubs at the main sett. By June, of the 14 setts dug on that wet and wintry day, 9 were still in use. In July there was no change, but by the following month two more setts were inactive.
One year after the flood disaster, only two of the emergency setts remained in use. The badgers had no doubt chosen to move to other safer, drier areas, which was no surprise to me. What mattered was that they had survived; they had encountered a problem and resolved it in their own way (admittedly with some help) and life had returned to normal for them. As for me, I had helped in a small way and my reward was their survival and a memory that would stay with me forever.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Badger Behaviour"
Copyright © 2011 George E. Pearce.
Excerpted by permission of Pelagic Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. A lifetime’s experience
Marooned: a bundle of badgers
2 .Badger biology
Scented signposts; What’s on the menu?; Follow the tracks; Clues in the latrines; Spoilheaps: mountains of information
3. The world of the sett
Secret world of the sett; Tunnels: DIY larders Reproduction Head over heels – but it gave me a clue
4. Badgers in the family
Badgers – every one a character; Hiya, captivating Hiya; Bodger, the one and only Bodger
5. Badger rescue
Road victim with a sad secret; Road victims: what you should do; A badger in a sack and the owl that wheezed; Help them, but don’t hang on to them
6. Badger consultancy
Ducks’ legs and raindrops; Makeway, makeway; Have they read the book?; Some of the things I am asked to do; You name it, they’ll dig there; Sett closures and artificial setts; Tackling the big jobs
7. Badgers and farming
Too much muscle; “Killed a hundred, he’ as”; Carry on farming!; Bovine tuberculosis (bTB); Badgers and bTB
Sett-watching tips; Sit quietly!; The weather; Feeding badgers ; Seeing in the dark; Hides
9. Final thoughts