Close encounters: Badger watching near Tiverton
PUBLISHED: 11:17 07 July 2014 | UPDATED: 11:17 07 July 2014
SIMON HEPTINSTALL experiences nature up close at a rural spot near Tiverton
The excitement mounted as we approached the tangled old patch of woodland. We’d already been told: no perfume, after-shave or bright clothing. We’d even carefully checked, as asked, that our jackets didn’t make too many crinkly rustling sounds.
Entering the wood was the signal to end all conversation. We walked deep into the deciduous trees, our guide Anne occasionally stopping amid carpets of bluebells to whisper about signs of owls, deer, mice and pheasants on the way.
But we were here to find badgers – one of the most elusive and controversial of our nocturnal mammals. Whether you consider they are the poor victims of establishment genocide or the prime cause of farm destroying disease, you have to admit badgers look rather cute.
I’d taken my family to a wonderful mid-Devon valley of rolling farmland just outside Tiverton to visit one of the longest running and highest-rated places to see wild badgers in the UK.
Anne and Kevin Atkinson have operated Devon Badger Watch here for 18 years. They moved out of the Home Counties but found the economics of a small family farm challenging. Kevin took a day job and is now head of property services at Torbay Council. At the same time, the Atkinsons stumbled on an idea that allowed them to work at home in the evenings and indulge their love of wildlife. “We derive a great deal of reward from seeing the pleasure people get from the badgers,” says Kevin.
The couple had already spent a few nights crouched in their wood spotting badgers emerge from a sett. So they established a visitor attraction by making a small ‘visitor centre’ in an old milking shed, lighting a path through their wood and building a comfortable wooden hide. “Then we spent three months getting the badgers used to people being in the hide,” explains Anne. “We didn’t want to tame the badgers; we wanted to keep them as wild as possible.”
On our visit, my family settled into the chairs in the hide and looked through large glass windows across the floodlit sett entrances a few feet away. The first badgers appeared after few moments. The dominant male is first, sniffing and stopping to listen, before scurrying to find scattered peanuts. Soon there were three or four badgers snuffling around. Some came within inches of the window.
Even my reluctant teenage son was impressed. “This is so cool,” he murmured. The slight noise was enough to make the closest badger look up, staring straight at us. We froze...and the badger returned to scoffing nuts.
Indeed, it turns out that the ‘hyenas of Europe’, with fierce canine teeth and no predators other than man, are ridiculously timid. Several times the badgers run for cover at the sound of a twig or even, humorously, at the appearance of a mouse.
Somehow that adds to the thrill. It would be impossible to see truly wild badgers this close without the hide and the Atkinson’s years of perfecting the experience. All their careful rules about wearing no scent or bright clothes clearly do work. “We have tried to tame the people, not the badgers,” says Anne.
Devon Badger Watch
East Stoodleigh Barton Farm, near Tiverton.
Tel 01398 351506 devonbadgerwatch.co.uk
Badger watches are held several times a week, Mondays to Saturdays between April and October. It usually starts around 7.30pm. The hide can accommodate groups of up to 23, including children’s parties. Regular photography evenings are held at the site. Standard prices: Adults £11, children (7-15) £8.
Grand Western Canal
This 11-mile long country park starts in Tiverton. It is perfect for walks, cycles or boat trips following the route of a lock-less 200-year-old canal through pretty farmland and woods rich with kingfishers. devon.gov.uk/grand_western_canal
Just two miles north of the town, you’ll find this classic National Trust country estate with a Victorian gothic mansion, acclaimed gardens and extensive parkland to explore. nationaltrust.org.uk/knightshayes/
Enter through a 700-year-old red sandstone gatehouse once the scene of a Civil War battle to find displays of armour and weapons inside. tivertoncastle.com/
Tiverton Museum of Mid-Devon Life
The town’s museum is far better than the average dusty municipal collection. There are 15 galleries of eccentric artefacts from a GWR steam train to relics from Tiverton’s Roman fortress. tivertonmuseum.org.uk/
Four miles south of Tiverton, Bickleigh has become a small village dedicated to tourism. Bickleigh Mill (bickleighmill.com) is a collection of shopping, crafts and kids activities. Yearlstone Vineyard (yearlstone.co.uk) offers tours, food and, of course, wine. Devon Railway Centre (devonrailwaycentre.co.uk) is a small family theme park based at an old station on the South Devon line. Add in pretty thatched cottages, riverside pubs, a watermill and a 14th-century stone bridge and you’ll see why Bickleigh is such a popular spot.