Badgers are not having a good year. The long hot dry spell in the UK over the past few months has made it difficult for Badgers, especially this year's new born cubs, to forage for food. On top of this, the UK's current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove MP, has decided against all the scientific evidence not only to continue the Badger cull but to extend it to low-risk areas. Unbelievable a "bounty" of £50.00 per Badger has been offered to farmers who undertake the cull.
For nine years, I have photographed several families of Badgers at different setts near to my home. In May of this year, just as the hot dry spell started and with the decision on the cull still to be made, I spent time at one of these local setts as this year's new born cubs started to become active above ground. I have always found this to be a very good time to photograph Badgers as the new born cubs start to explore their surroundings and play around with each other. Following the long wet winter, as the weather warmed the vegetation exploded in into a mass of verdant green. Whilst providing a lush green background, the vegetation was a little long especially for the small cubs who could be lost in it making photographing them a little tricky at times.
The sett I worked at had three new born cubs in addition to the adults and sub adults. The Badgers were active before dusk with the cubs sometimes appearing from late afternoon. The area of the sett I photographed faces south west and catches the last light of the setting sun making it ideal for photographing the Badgers provided they played ball.
I have found the older Badgers I have worked with, even though they tolerate my presence, to be more wary than the younger cubs. Unlike some photographers, I have not sought to habituate any Badgers. To do so would, given the areas where the setts I work at are situated, risk endangering the Badgers.
New born Badger cubs are incredibly curious and inquisitive. Provided a reasonable standard of field-craft is followed, the young cubs will at times come very close to you. This year I saw for the first time cubs that would deliberately puff themselves and their fur up to make themselves look larger than they are as they approached. This behaviour was very endearing and made the cubs look even cuter.
On one memorably occasion, one of this year's new born cubs came so close that I could have touched it. Rather than touching the cub and with it being too close for the lens I was using to focus on it, I quickly took out my iPhone and made some close up images of the cub. I was very pleased with the quality of the images I made with my iPhone. The ticks that the young cubs have all picked up can clearly be seen on this one's eyes.
I used a Nikon D5 with the new Nikon 180-400mm TC 1.4 lens for most of my photography of the Badgers. This was the first real test of the new Nikon lens and it out performed the older Nikon 200-400mm lens that it replaced in terms of auto-focus, sharpness and image stabilisation. The Nikon D5 has an amazing low light performance, both in its ability to focus in low light and its high iso performance. By using this camera and lens combination I was able to make images in much lower light than in previous years when using older cameras and lenses. The three images below were made at iso 81,200 and 102,400 respectively. Whilst there is noise in the images made at these extreme iso settings it adds an effect more akin to the grain found in film. Given the Badgers facial markings, these high iso images work very well as black and white conversions.
Given the location of the sett and the farm animals that were grazing around it, I was unable to set up a hide when photographing the Badgers. Instead, I would arrive early, several hours before I expected the Badgers to be active and set up using a camouflage net to break up the shape and silhouette of my camera and tripod. I would lie behind this low blind and place the net over my head and shoulders. On a few occasions I was surprised to find at least one of the young cubs already out but with a little patience and care I always managed to set up without causing any disturbance. Using the camouflage net in this way I was not completely hidden from view but it did not trouble the Badgers and the cubs would walk around it. On several occasions the cubs came right up to the net to investigate. Being so close to a wild Badger that was not troubled by my presence was incredible. I also had to be careful about casting my shadow onto the grass as the sun set behind the area where I would photograph from. Wind direction was also a factor that had to be considered (fortunately most nights were still) and I would adjust my position to prevent my scent from being blown onto the sett if there was any wind.
A great number of very kind and caring people are helping Badgers this year. From the teams vaccinating Badgers against Bovine Tuberculosis to individuals providing food and water to help them through the tough weather conditions. All of this to help one of our most charismatic and beautiful animals. If you are interested in finding out more about Badgers and the work being undertaken to protect them The Badger Trust is the leading organisation in the UK dedicated to promoting and enhancing the welfare, conservation and protection of Badgers, their setts, and their habitats.