by Alfred E. Pease 1898
The badger is of such a shy and self-effacing disposition that he seems likely to retire altogether from amongst us, unless the sportsman’s interest in him can be revived. The badger’s love of seclusion and natural instinct to avoid observation will become more and more difficult for him to gratify, unless his kind receive special protection in most parts of England. The humane Act that rendered the brutal pastime of badger-baiting illegal no doubt has encouraged his destruction and extinction in many districts. The demand for badgers ceased; the supply diminished. We would gladly believe, in a more merciful age, that, apart from legality or illegality, men nowadays do not generally regard badger-drawing out of boxes or tubs as a reputable sport. All genuine sportsmen have something of the naturalist in their composition, but where this instinct is not developed, the average sportsman is unlikely to trouble himself about an animal that is seldom en evidence, who selects the night for his appearance, and whose invasions into man’s sphere are of so unobtrusive a character. The fox, the otter, and other beasts of chase keep themselves before the public by their crimes, but the self-renouncing modesty of the badger has led him to be neglected or despised. Yet, apart from shaving brushes, a badger has his uses. He is a destroyer of wasps and small vermin, and an excellent maker of fox-earths. In countries where mange in foxes has become a scourge, the preservation of badgers would do much to rid fox-hunters of this plague—for they are wonderful cleansers of earths, cleaning those they frequent in the most thorough manner; and, unless very numerous, they encourage foxes, as their “sets” are the fox’s favourite resort. The badger may live in our midst, almost at the threshold of our doors, and yet leave us ignorant of his presence. I once asked a Cornish farmer if there were badgers about his place; he not only answered there were none, but that he had never heard of or seen any during the many years he had lived on the farm. Within ten minutes from receiving this information, one of my terriers had “found” in a culvert that ran at the back of his barn, causing intense astonishment. His scepticism, however, did not finally give way to conviction till two badgers were unearthed, after a night of toil, at five o’clock in the morning. Once, when travelling on the Great Western Railway, I overheard the following conversation between two gentlemen:—
First well-informed gent: “Seen this in the papers about badgers being caught in Essex?”
Second: “No. How interesting!”
First: “Yes. Very curious, isn’t it?”
Second: “By the way, what is a badger like?”
First: “Oh—er—a badger is an animal that lives in the water, something like a seal.”
Second: “No, no! That’s an otter. I know what an otter is. A badger is more like a ferret or weasel.”
First: “Yes, I believe you’re right, but I fancy it’s larger than that.”
Second: “How big would you say?”
First: “Oh, I don’t know exactly, but nearly as big as a hare.”
Second: “Oh, of course! They used to bait badgers with dogs; they must be larger than a ferret.”
And so they went on, much to my amusement; and when they had set up their badger, I rather cruelly knocked it over, and gave them a little elementary education on the badger and his ways. Now, these two persons had both of them a natural disposition to be interested in badgers, and, astounding as is the ignorance of thousands who are fond of animal life, it requires but a very few words to arouse their interest in the rarer species of wild animals that we can still boast of as British.
The fact is, since the cruel and brutalising sport of badger-baiting has been stamped out, the badger has been forgotten except by a few naturalists, sportsmen, and by the gamekeeper. Being neither furred nor feathered game, the keeper, of course (where his master’s wishes to the contrary are not expressed), treats him as vermin and wages war on all his tribe. With all their good qualities, keepers are too apt to consider that nothing but game has any right to live in an English covert.
“The mousing owl he spares not, flitting through the twilight dim,The beak it wears, it is, he swears, too hook’d a one for him.In every woodland songster he suspects a secret foe, His ear no music toucheth, save the roosting pheasant’s crow.”
Down go the falcons, the buzzards, the hawks, the jays, the magpies, the owls, the woodpeckers, the kingfishers, and any other bird that “wears a beak too hook’d,” or a dress gaudy enough to attract his attention. Badgers and squirrels are put into the same category as polecats, stoats, and weasels, and with almost as little compunction. Yet a badger is practically harmless to game, though I will not pretend to acquit him of the charge of taking a rabbit out of a snare, or of digging out a nest of young rabbits on occasion. He is, however, death on small vermin and such pests as wasps, though his main food consists of roots, fruits, wild honey, beetles, and insects. I believe that badgers eat slugs, but I have placed dishes of assorted kinds, from big black to small white, before my tame ones, and never could induce them to partake of them.
I see no other method by which the badger’s continued existence can be assured than that of hunting him. Personally, I should be content if I could believe that the desire to keep an English species from extinction would perpetuate his existence; but I fear that, like the red deer, fox, and otter, he will have to make his exit if he be not hunted. Some object to badger-hunting underground because of the punishment often inflicted on the terriers, and of the tendency that the sport may degenerate into a sort of drawing match. If, however, we are to compare one sport with another, there is nothing in a properly managed badger-digging that can disgust the spectator as he must be disgusted towards the finish of the otter hunt.
One of the most cruel amusements, if we look closely into it, is ferreting rabbits. And yet who will say that ferreting rabbits is anything but a fair and reputable sport? But the man who is constantly rabbiting will announce, with airs of superior humanity, that digging out a badger is too brutal a sport for him. Why, there is no comparison! In a properly managed badger-digging there is no cruelty whatever. The badger is taken without so much as a scratch, and the terriers consider their pleasure cheaply purchased when they have the misfortune to get a kiss on the face from a badger. No man wishes to have a good terrier mauled, and such men as enjoy taking the badger are always ready to bear their own share of risk of punishment and exertion in securing the prize. To dig out a badger in a strong “set,” requires great and continuous exertion, considerable knowledge and skill in the pursuit, and a well-trained and trustworthy team of terriers. The terriers must, to be successful, combine discretion with valour and pertinacity. A dog that goes to ground, and immediately tries a “set to” with a badger, either gets badly punished or such a frightening that he becomes a funker. All that a good terrier should do, when despatched underground, is to follow the badger, giving tongue till he corners him, and then lie up to him baying, keeping him there through long hours, if necessary, while the digging proceeds; never heeding the noise of spade, pick, and shovel overhead, and never fighting unless the badger attempts to charge or leave his place. One reliable terrier with a good voice is worth all the worrying, excitable terriers in the countryside. I have seen a dog keep a dozen men digging for hours; and when at last they got to him, they found he was only barking out of the fulness of his heart, or scratching and chewing roots to get up a rabbit-hole.
The scarcity of badgers, and the consequent restriction of hunting-grounds, has deprived the terrier in a great degree of his vocation. As the name terrier implies a dog adapted for “going to earth,” no dog that cannot go to ground is properly a terrier; and no terrier that will not go to ground is worthy of his name. It has always seemed to me a reproach to my native county that the beastly little lap-dog called a Yorkshire terrier should be so described, for though no doubt a whole pack of these ridiculous creatures could go down a rabbit-hole, yet if, by some inconceivable process, they were induced to venture down a badger-earth, they would hardly afford a meal for a brock. For a totally opposite reason another Yorkshire breed is unfitted for the name of terrier—this is the Airedale. He is, as a rule, a game sort of dog, and I have seen one look very much distressed when he could only get his head into a large earth. The preposterous size of this so-called terrier is such that he cannot go to ground; this is also the case with the general run of Bedlingtons, Dandie Dinmonts, black and tan, and even Irish terriers; though when a Dandy or Irish terrier is small enough, he is excellent, and can claim the title. The fox-terrier, whether wire-haired or smooth, is often an excellent badger dog. The bull-terrier, as seen in the showyard, is too big, and, when diminutive, is generally too pugnacious for the purpose, and has too much of the obstinate and unreasoning ferocity of the bull-dog to make a good badger dog. Yet it is sometimes useful to have a strain of his blood in the fox-terrier, if it can be obtained in such small quantity as neither to destroy the reliability and voice, nor the less excitable disposition of the fox-terrier.
When pursuing a badger underground, the dog that does the most satisfactory work is hard, strong, short-legged, sharp-tongued, and discreet; one that is a sure marker, that will not go if there is nothing to go for, that will not quit the pursuit as long as there is game ahead—who, regardless of noise above and the onslaught of the enemy underground, in spite of twisting passages and the interposition of barricades, continues the attack, and never ceases from giving tongue when in proximity to the foe. Such a terrier should not close unless he is charged, and he must not be of so excitable a temperament that he will bay an imaginary foe, or attack another dog despatched underground to his relief. I am not sure whether a good Dachshund (Dachs—German for badger) is not as useful as any other. The properly trained sort is only “made in Germany,” and on the Continent he is most intelligent and companionable, enormously strong, very pertinacious, has a splendid voice, and beautiful teeth.
In our own island, the Scotch terrier is hard to beat. The right breed are wonders of pluck, endurance, perseverance, and intelligence; their voices are sharp and penetrating, and their long, lithe bodies are carried on short, active legs; they are, moreover, charming companions, and fasten on to their owner’s affections as firmly as to a badger’s neck. The Irish terrier, when small enough, is a good one, and so is the rarer old-fashioned English broken-haired black and tan.
Digging the badger is, perhaps, the most entertaining manner of taking him. It is pleasant on a summer’s morning to start after daybreak with an eager team of terriers, and all the appliances for laying siege to the badger’s stronghold, in the hope that, after the sorties and assaults of the day, you may return with something worth looking at in the sacks. And there are many worse ways of spending a holiday than in watching your terriers at their lawful and natural avocation, and handling pick, spade, and shovel yourself. Some, however, shrink from the labour and sweat of the digging, and prefer hunting the badger at night above ground. For this sport any bobbery pack will do if the members of it are a sporting lot, are fond of a scent, and can make a good tow-row. Many sorts and conditions of dogs will do for the hunt on a moonlight night, but the best run and the best music will be with harriers.
A game fox-hound, a bob-tailed sheep-dog, or a retriever will come in useful. The course of procedure is simple. About 10 p.m. the badger-earths in the neighbourhood are stopped, with the exception of two or three well-used entrances. In these are placed sacks with a running cord through the neck of the bag, the ends of which are firmly pegged and secured, so that when in his flight he charges into his earth, he fastens himself neatly into the sack. A man should be posted near (taking the wind into account) to make all quite safe—if the badger falls into the trap laid for him. The pack is then taken out, and coverts and hedgerows drawn, and when the scent is struck, a run of a few miles may, at least, be hoped for. This kind of hunting yields its full crop of disappointments.
I knew of one undergraduate at Oxford, whose sporting establishment consisted of a tame badger, a beagle, and a bull-terrier. Whenever he required a little exercise and a hunting-run, the badger was turned out, the beagle laid on after a certain amount of law, and the bull-terrier kept in reserve to recover the badger, should he go to ground. This sporting quartette thoroughly understood each other, and, as a rule, each kept to his own special department. The badger was expected, at least, to give a two or three miles’ run over a country, the beagle to speak to him all the way, and to account for him, the man to keep the beagle in view, and the terrier to facilitate the operation of bagging the badger at the finish. Thus all four obtained in an original manner exercise and diversion. This form of amusement, however, does not appear to reach a much higher level than hunting carted deer.
In conclusion, I would appeal to all lovers of nature, among the best of whom are numbered the true sportsmen, to use their influence in securing a reasonable protection for the badger. And if they will take the trouble of observing his habits and mode of life, I can predict with confidence they will come to the same conclusion as the writer, that he is an animal well worth preserving from extinction, both as a beast of chase and on account of his many interesting and useful qualities.