“What does a badger look like?” asked my wife one evening from the kitchen a few days into lockdown.
It was an innocent enough question that started an obsession which has helped keep me sane during lockdown. Badgers visit the garden most nights. We saw them that first night, tucking into a chicken carcass left out for the fox who we had been feeding since moving into the house in June 2019. A small rented house with a tiny back garden and a thin gallery of wild woodland behind in an ordinary suburb of Bournemouth.
Now I study fossil footprints and have done so for years so you will understand that the first thing I did was to scatter some sand in the corner of the garden between the fence and the rear hedge. The exact place where the badgers entered the garden that first night. And while we did not see the badgers in person again for a long time, their footprints told a story of their nightly visits. I started to cast the tracks in plaster and the rest is history as they say.
Eight weeks later I have a shed filled with plaster casts of varying size and several hours of video made with a cheap night vision camera bought via Amazon. It may not quite have been an essential order at the time, but hey it saved my mental health, so it was in my book. The camera revealed a male badger, called Boris, a female (Belinda) with what we think are two yearling cubs that follow her around. And yes, rightly, or wrongly we feed them from time to time. The fox gets the bones and scarps we leave out, but the badgers are rather partial to bird seed and water. Neither the badgers, nor the fox are keen on the dog food that may have accidentally fallen into our shopping basket from time to time over the last few weeks. The sand trap has grown and been replenished several times and the casts have got larger as access to both sand and plaster has become easier with the gradual easing of lockdown. You might ask why plaster and not use photogrammetry which is what I use for fossil tracks. Well photogrammetry felt too much like work, although I now have some amazing 3D photogrammetry models as well like the one below.
Apart from the daily pleasure of reviewing the camera footage, checking the sand for tracks, and preparing the casts I am not quite sure of the scientific value of the game. Let us call it a game for now. Badgers tracks are highly distinctive, appear to be sexually dimorphic and before we had the camera were the only real way, we knew they were regular visitors to our garden. I had never seen a badger before that first night, despite spending many hours in the countryside over the years. There are a few research papers out there that advocate using tracks to monitor endangered, or just interesting, animals around the world and the potential is well illustrated by our garden badgers. It was the footprints after all that indicated their regular presence.
In time I hope to work through the casts we have and showcase the variability in badger tracks to help others recognise them both for monitoring purposes and for pure interest. I also have plans to write the work up in time as a case study in track variability. In the meantime, badgers rock!