The Year of the Acorns

In the first of three posts for our 'Other Kingdoms' section, Jane Smith takes us on night patrol into the English woods in a pandemic year when the oak trees flourished and the much-loved badgers, who live among their roots, continue to be under fire from government-licensed farmers.
lives in Cheshire, England. Her children’s picture book Some Animals, with illustrator Melanie Selstrom, is due for publication in late 2021.

The flipside of ‘not taking life’ is the cherishing of life, holding it sacred. It’s a fierce solidarity with all living beings – Kara Moses 

 

A fern frond, five feet tall, brushes my cheek and I experience it as a kiss. Night walking in ancient English woodland, living things reach out and touch me as I go – plants, branches, falling leaves, sudden drops in temperature, shadows. Hours of tramping have blurred my boundaries, and sometimes I can’t seem to tell anymore where I end and the wood begins, or where my feet stop being feet and become part of the cracking twigs beneath them.

At night in the woods, my senses conspire and merge into one another. I think I see the outline of a fox, but I can’t be sure until a whole five seconds later, and there it is – that unmistakable sharp scent of Vulpes vulpes, always a sudden visitation, at once all-enveloping yet impossible to locate. 

The woods brim with scent, shapes and sound. In one moment the immediate area is incontrovertibly badgerland, with its musky-sandy odour, its loose earth, its ferns and nettles, its numerous badger runs criss-crossing my path; a minute later, a fall in temperature from one step to the next and a key change in the vegetation tell me that I’ve passed through the clan’s territory and entered a different world, sometimes of deer, sometimes of fox, but no longer of badger.

I’ve never learned to track animals, having grown up in a city. But hundreds of hours of night trekking have re-awakened a dusty old instinct, one my ancestors will have relied upon but which I didn’t even know I had, and one which tells me exactly when I’m in the badgerlands or not.  ‘Keep your wits about you’ is redundant here – in woodlands, we’re in the world of the senses.

Since 2013, a government-led badger cull in England has seen over 140,000 native badgers killed out of an estimated population of 485,000, ostensibly to prevent badgers transmitting tuberculosis to farmed cattle – despite a glaring absence of evidence that culling badgers is effective at all in reducing bovine TB. The Wounded Badger Patrols were set up across the shires as a response to the cull and as a legal vehicle for people to actively oppose badger shooting, with the triple aim of walking the network of public footpaths at night to monitor activities, to prevent shooting (a ‘human shield’ tactic – if humans are in the vicinity, the shooters are not allowed to shoot) and to assist wounded badgers.

Always challenging work due to being in the dark and often in the rain as well as adrenaline-fuelled and emotionally draining, this past year’s eight weeks of patrolling have been more difficult than usual, partly due to the Covid pandemic which has meant we can’t car-share (as a result, we lost many non-driver patrollers). Added to that, in past years the badgers have been baited with peanuts and maize, which we’re able to spot in advance; this year, a natural abundance of acorns, to which badgers are very partial, has made them easy targets as they forage. Each year of badger patrolling has been different from the others, and in my head I’d been calling our autumn 2020 patrol ‘the year of the acorns’. 

The age range on our local patrols is 18 to 83. Iona is an animal behaviour student at a local university; Sharon is a probation officer; Gillian is a former chemistry teacher; Mark is a retired doctor. We find ourselves talking about our ‘real lives’ as though our strange night walking exists in another realm entirely. For all of us, daily life is jobs, children, ageing parents, mortgages – but also, now, for these weeks every autumn, walking through the countryside at night in defence of the badgers. With our different ages, backgrounds, careers, political affiliations and temperaments, we find ourselves united, an unlikely group brought together in our hi-viz vests, carrying our torches and flasks and walking the walk, quite literally, in the badgers’ own land, and in the badgers’ own time, under cover of darkness.

In declaring their war on badgers, the government didn’t count on one thing: the ancient and wondrously powerful act of resistance by walking, one step at a time across the English countryside, no weapons on us but all armed with the simple knowledge of right and wrong, making us so  much more powerful, in truth, than the men with guns.

I have three school-age children. When I put on my hi-viz and walking gear for the night, leaving the night’s parenting to my husband, I sometimes tell myself I’m modelling engaged citizenship for them. But in truth I have a deep need to be out in the fields and in the relative quiet of what is, in fact, a war waged against wildlife. If the government is massacring badgers, my instinctive response is to be out there defending them – even if part of me feels I’m neglecting my own young to protect the badgers’ young. In positive moments I believe I’m extending my nurturing instincts to the whole of Nature; in darker moods, I wonder how I can really justify the hundreds of hours spent out in the badgerlands each autumn, years when my children are growing up so fast. 

Surely badgers have the right to bein their ancestral lands, away from human interference? Don’t they have as much right to their badger lives as we do to our human lives?

Surely badgers have the right to be in their ancestral lands, away from human interference? Don’t they have as much right to their badger lives as we do to our human lives? Isn’t their place in our woodland ecology sacrosanct?

I feel it is – but more than that, my heart knows it is, and my brain and my heart working in tandem are what have brought me out here, so many night-miles away from my comfort zone, or what used to be my comfort zone but which is now the distant twinkling lights of the town that I love less than the woods. 

*

Three years ago I had the terrible misfortune to hit a badger on the M6 motorway. I’d just glimpsed the badger zig-zagging frantically across the lanes but had no chance to swerve, on a busy Friday night carriageway and with four passengers in the car. I heard the dull thud and knew straight away I’d hit him or her. Unable to pull over, I drove home unable to cry or speak but open-mouthed, as if frozen by the horrible moment. My friends tried to comfort me. There was nothing you could have done. It’s just one of those things. It will have been an instant and painless death. The badger won’t have known anything about it. 

The following morning I spent two hours on the phone arguing with the road construction company’s ecological consultants about the partial safety barriers which meant badgers and other wild animals could easily stray onto that stretch of the motorway. I lost the argument – the barriers had been designed around human workers’ safety and ambulance access. That night, though, I had the most vivid and electrifying dream that a badger was leading me down deep into a sett at dizzying speed. When I woke up, I could still smell the sandy earth of the sett and the badger’s unmistakeable musk. 

Three years on, I still find myself clenching the steering wheel too hard on that stretch of motorway, as if ready to swerve this time, as if I’m hoping to do it all again, differently. My body can’t forget what happened there – but nor can it change anything, much as it wants to.

Badger patrolling has made me think about life and death in a new way. When I see a group of badgers out foraging in the autumn, the threat of death by shooting that hangs over them is very real. They can’t be shot as long as I’m there, though – and this makes me almost taste their life, that’s to say their ‘alive-ness’. In my own 21st century human life, there are very few occasions where I’m deeply conscious of being alive in the present moment. But being out in the dark fields, witnessing badger families exploring, eating and surviving together, I can almost reach out and touch their free, wild, precious, vulnerable lives – and in those moments, I myself feel more alive, more connected, more rooted to the one world we all call home. 

Being out in the dark fields, witnessing badger families exploring, eating and surviving together, I can almost reach out and touch their free, wild, precious, vulnerable lives

In my human life no one will try to shoot me while I’m out eating with my family; no-one will lay bait and trap me in a cage. This is precious freedom. But it’s taken coming up close against the badgers’ precarious lives, and their freedom that can so easily and randomly be taken away, to appreciate my own freedom, and to feel the weight of an imperative to do something good with it. At night, in the fields, the taste of freedom is on my tongue. No-one can shoot me, because I’m human and it would be against human law. There’s the heart-breaking delineation: for some, my life is valuable, and the badgers’ lives are not. It’s a wrongful divide, a species-ist divide – and one that I’m consciously blurring by patrolling the woods during the badger cull. 

*

Death is also all around me on badger patrol. I often find dead birds; one farmer had strung a dozen dead crows along a fence we had to pass. I sometimes listen in horror as foxes take ducks for their supper; sometimes I find a rabbit painfully sick with the dreaded myxomatosis, stumbling around a field, blind and helpless.

One evening we found an older badger who had died from natural causes but had made her way back to the sett entrance. She had died there, curled up as if she was just sleeping. We decided to leave her there so the other clan members could see her, but we also laid some wildflowers around her. Passing near her nightly for a couple more weeks, we saw the rapid deterioration of her body, her eyes being taken by birds, her once strong frame sinking back into the earth surprisingly quickly. There was something strangely calming about this badger sow. Perhaps her return to the sett was the comforting aspect; perhaps it was the gentle dreaming position she’d assumed as she died. I wonder whether it was because to die of natural causes, rather than at the hands of a shooter or under the wheels of a car, is something of a blessing for any badger these days. 

Badger patrolling might bring them sharply into focus, but life and death are, of course, all around us, all the time, whether we’re city-slicking humans or wild animals in the forest. The challenge, perhaps, is to appreciate both of them at once. Life is impressively short; death is impressively final. The two define each other – living is a not-being-dead, while dying is a stopping-living. We humans certainly seem to spend a lot of time worrying about both of them, forgetting somehow that they’re two sides of the same coin. I once joked, during a badger patrol planning meeting when we were looking for a motto, that ‘Choose Life’, that famous 1980s T-shirt slogan, summed it up nicely. Amid the much-discussed complexities of the badger cull, we could also boil things down to our being on the side of life, as opposed to the cull’s aims of sudden and violent death visited on the badgers.

Feet on the ground: Wounded Badger Patrol check in (photo: Jane Smith)

Somehow, I find that putting walking boots on and clocking up the night miles on badger patrols is also a way of saying that I appreciate life. I love my life, but I also cherish the lives that wild animals have. Using parts of our lives to defend the badgers’ right to live is perhaps a way of saying that life is not only precious – it’s also indivisible among the species. In defending another species’ right to live, perhaps we’re standing more powerfully in our own lives and, more importantly, in the collective life of our shared earth. 

The Year of the Acorns had been tough. Lockdown caused us all a lot of practical headaches, that year’s cull was extended significantly, and nature itself seemed complicit at times, with its rich carpets of acorns, themselves holding precious life within but spelling death by shooting for so many badgers. 

I brought some acorns home from patrol in my pocket one night. When I tipped them out onto the kitchen table, it felt like I was bringing ‘out there’ into ‘inside here’ – a little bit of the deep woods coming into our centrally-heated human home. But more than that, the acorns also represented the hope of life alongside the threat of death. They had a bothness, two parts of a whole. And on my kitchen table, they carried that year’s message from the badgerlands.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please consider making a donation to help us continue our work. You can do so here.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 19

Our spring 2021 collection of prose, poetry and art revolves around the theme of death, loss and renewal

Read more
Comments
  1. Thank you, Jane, for expressing exactly what I feel about wild animal-ness — not badgers, here in central Canada, but foxes, coyotes, deer. I couldn’t agee more that all life is sacred and has, or should have equal rights. Your amazing dream is echoed in this poem by the late Canadian poet Don Coles, written from the point of view of another ground-dwelling animal, the groundhog:

    Groundhog Testifies

    There is a narrow endless place
    Where the earth has frozen; on this
    They live at unbelievable speeds
    While it is light and when it is dark
    Different ones, ten times longer
    And composed mostly of yellow air
    The same width as the frozen place,
    Live there instead; these in spite of
    So much greater length behave about the same.
    You cannot dig there. The next day
    They all come back, they have not
    Grown tired only discovered their mistake.
    Who knows what purpose this has?
    When we go into the frozen place
    They become angry and kill us. They never
    Stand motionlessly for minutes erect
    And when being so deprived they grow
    Distressed or weak they smash one another.
    They have no idea how fragrant and far down
    Home is.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *