by Arthur Heinemann November 23rd 1907
“Ignotum Omne pro magnifico” is nowhere better exemplified than in badger-digging and otter-hunting, and there are more fallacies popularly held about both the otter and the badger themselves, and their pursuit as well, than about any other beast of the chase. Even to-day there are many people to whom badger-digging with terriers, or badger-hunting with hounds, conveys nothing more than badger-baiting, that word being in the popular mind indissolubly associated with poor Uncle Brock, just as there are many who to this day picture to themselves otter-hunters sallying forth armed with long poled spears on which to impale Lady Lutra.
Yet for many years badger-baiting has been an obsolete and illegal sport (if ever a sport it was). and for half a century or more the otter-hunter and ceased to use the unsportsmanlike spear, though for his own safety in fording rivers and fathoming their depths he still carries the harmless pole to which the spear used to be attached at the psychological moment. Not as one ingenious maiden once suggested to me, with the object of prodding the otter and making him go faster
About the badgers habits and formation especially are a fallacies rife, I have a print or two in which they are depicted with cloven feet, for there were supposed to be two sorts of badger-the ordinary and the swine-badger; and perhaps it is from that we get the term boar and sow for male and female badger. Nor is it an uncommon experience for yokels to ask me to show them which is the shorter leg the badger is held to possess to enable him to travel the better on aidling ground. Then, most keepers will tell you badgers suck eggs, quite forgetting to mention the very many other articles of diet that appeal more often to them- young rabbits, slugs, snails, beetles, wasp-grubs, underground nuts and roots of wild arum lily, hyacinth, buttercup, &c. And it is because this oldest and most retiring of the British mammals to-day extant shuns the fierce light of day and publicity as well that those who know little or nothing about him have thus given rein to the wildest flights of their imagination. for there are even modern natural history text-books for which tell you badgers kill lambs; and to stink like a badger is a saying that is a gross libel on one of the most cleanly animals imaginable in all his habits.
Poor Brockly ! everyman’s hand seems to be against you, and the crime of vulpicide is (often wrongly) laid at your door. Yet, thanks to your nocturnal habits and the skill you show as an architect of labyrinthine mazes below ground in some impregnable rocky tree-trunked fastness, you can still hold your own in many parts of the kingdom, your presence often unsuspected, till one who runs to read the book of nature plots your plantigrade imprint in the soft soil of the moorland track or covert side.
Lovers of nature and all her children are still to be found in this over populated land of ours who hold their protecting reign over Uncle Brock, while many badger-digger, by rousing local interest and showing himself merciful even in the hour of victory, does much to ensure the preservation of the bold British badger. It is no uncommon experience for keepers to ask me to space the sow badgers, and for farmers to ask me to give some fresh-caught captive his liberty on their farm, that they, equally with their neighbours, may have another year a badger colony to provide the sport of a days dig.
And so it has come about that following in the footsteps of several of my predecessors of like benevolence towards the badgers, i have been enabled to change badgers from Devon to Somerset, and vice-versa, thus ensuring a healthy stock and enabling me to dig out literally hundreds. The great trouble is that there is no close-time provided by law for the badger, who lays down her cubs in February and March, and even earlier i have reason to believe, though February 1st is the earliest date on which i have found cubs. And then, too, with the close of the shooting season keepers have more time to devote to the destruction of vermin, as they too often reward badgers, so that many a badger-dig is, to suit their convenience , put off till the very time when Mrs. Brock is busy with her nursery duties and anxieties.
There may be some who ask what is the object of badger-digging if you are a friend of the badger? Well, I can only say that if there was no fun to be had out of a dig the farmers and others would not preserve badgers, as so many of them do well, and trap and poison would soon play havoc on their ranks. I now of districts where badgers are neither hunted nor dug, with the result that they are barbarously stifled with sulphur in their earths. A badger-dig satisfies the blood thirsty farmer, who see the badger dug out and bagged and carried away, though he may not see him “slipped” on the way home, and on the principle of the heart not grieving over what the eye does not see. all parties are contended; while for a pleasant meeting of neighbours, some exciting sport , a pleasant al fresco lunch, and a friendly chat and joke, there is no time or place like a badger-dig.
Those great fox earths that save so many foxes from being found or are the despair of roundsmen and the disgust and disappointment of hounds after a long run, are so bisected by badger-diggers that the hunt terrier can easily bolt a fresh or beaten fox from the,, thus conferring a boom on the fox hunting community, who could give a day to digging for. Not but what great care in necessary not to put too hard of a terrier or more then one to ground, till you are sue a badger is the sole tenant of an earth, and to bury or smother a fox if one is found there.
If you stop digging on February 1st you will not run much risk of chopping fox cubs, but accidents will happen, thought rarely, even in the best regulated families. i have only has two in twenty years. But any accidental har, done is surely atoned for by the goodwill towards fox-hunting a hunting man badger-digging can promote by word or deed. It is famous opportunity of meeting and entertaining your farmers, and to fill up the dull days of a period of frost and snow. I remember once hearing a farmer say, “I hope its a fox.” “I hope it isn’t,” answered the badger-digger. “Oh! I’m not friend to a fox.” said the farmer. “I’m sorry to hear that,” said B, before all the company, “you had better go to the parish-room yonder, where they’re conducting a mission, and get converted.” needless to say the laugh was against “anti-fox.” Perhaps badger-dogging as a sport is strong meat for weak stomachs, caviar to the multitude, to use more elegant language, but certainly it is full of wildly exciting incidents. Again, there is no finer school for working terriers.
One might possess a hundred terrier and not know their worth were it not for badger-digging, which demands no only pluck on the terriers part, but also the quality of threading the intricate maze of Brocks underground talliers in search of the quarry, and many a terrier will scamper trough an earth and reaper with the verdict-blank-writ large on his smug face, having failed to locate his quarry, who is lying all the time in some butt-hole or cut de sac, or on some shelf of ledge above his head. Then. when once located, you want the terrier who possesses doggedness enough to lay up to him, baying every second when fronting the foe-hard words-to tell you where to dig, and giving him when he turns hard blows or nope to prevent his digging on or burying himself before biagay and shovel shall have reached the scene of conflict. Certain terriers have all these qualities bred in them for generations, but practice makes perfect. and badger-digging develops them to the pitch of perfection, as running with foxhounds or otterhound can never do, for, to give only one instance, these sports do not allow of the necessary delays required.
Badger-baiting, when the badger is unearthed, is, apart from it’s cruelty, quite useless in the training of terriers, either making them too hard or cowing them altogether. In badger-digging there is no cruelty unless it be disturbing the peaceful slumbers of a such a sleepy old gentleman as uncle Buck, for no terriers teeth can hurt his tough hide, and i have only once known him come to a bad end, and that was when he had buried himself to reach a brach pipe, only to find another badger in front of him blocking ventilation. The result was fatal to Mr. Brock, though Mrs. Brock was taken out aline and well. But this was one of those unfortunately and unforeseen accidents that will happen in the best regulated families.
The most interesting part of badger-digging is the reconnoitering of the ‘terrain,” the day before, or harbouring, to borrow a stag-hunting phrase-the high-heaped pile of stones nd earth-the well-worn path padded by the plantigrade beast-the litter of moss, ferns, twigs, or grass, he had drawn into make his luxurious bed-the tree-trunk beside the earth smeared with the mud the badger always wipes off his feet-the long black hairs with their grey tops that are to be picked up at the entrance to his subterranean stronghold. And then the dig its self; eager terriers straining on their chains, eyes fixed expectantly on their master. The old depending dog selected to draw the earth, to the disappointment of his fellows. Men lying prone, ear to ground, to catch the opening challenge; then horn and voice ring out, cheering to the echo old Bingo or some other local champion. Then the plying of Blagay, shove and pick, sinking trench after trench, mine and countermine, till the badger is cornered, and the scene of conflict is laid bare. Deeper and deeper retreats Uncle Brock, undismayed and undisturbed at these onslaughts on his stronghold, until he can go no further, and with teeth gnashing to right and left he emerges into the trench, and is promptly tailed and dropped into a bag, only, maybe, to be turned out when hardiness descends on his native wilds, or to be transported to some more distant district and given his liberty, as he bundles off in the gathering gloom with his ungainly gait. The terriers alone are the sufferers, for they have not made any impression on his tough hide, but if dressed at once with the writers recipe (not to be given away with a pound of tea!!) there will be little swelling the next day, and no ill effects. More often the badger remains master of the situation, having defied perhaps from noon to midnight, as once happened this winter, the best efforts of men, tools, and terrier to unearth him. February and March, April too if possible, should be allowed as a time of grace to Mrs. Brock, and badgers all winter are in all their prose of grease and coat, though i know a man who says a summer badger is livelier then a winter one.
Your terriers however, will work better below ground in the winter than in the stifling heat of summer. Last winter badgers were unusually plentiful in Devon and Somerset, twenty-three digs yelding 38 badgers, four of which were cubs. One earth held five, another earth four (i have in years past unearthed six full grown badgers from one earth. and have heard of seven being brought to light). Of these thirty eight no less then twenty-three were sows; there were also thirteen boars, and two who’s sex was undetermined. Seven of the boars who were weighed turned the scale at 33 1/2lb, 30lb, 30lb, 29 1/2lb, 21lb, 19lb, 19lb, fourteen of the sows- 32lb, 31lb, 31lb, 30lb, 28lb, 27lb, 27lb, 25lb, 24lb, 24lb, 24lb, 23lb, 22lb, 21lb. Of the thirty-eight only nine were killed, sex escaped, and the rest were transported into fresh districts.