The Constant Badger
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
In those dear dead days on Open Salon, someone (Mr Toad?) objected to me criticising him, or even mildly disagreeing with him or correcting him. He accused me of “constantly badgering” him. I decided to rename my blog An Broc Dilis, which is Irish for The Constant (Faithful) Badger. I wrote an article which paid tribute to that much maligned animal.
I have often wondered why such an OK kind of beast should have given its name to “badgering” in the sense of pestering or harassing. The OS Mr Toad was an enemy of bullying. According to the etymologists, the usage dates from 1794, (how can they be so precise about dates?) from the noun (based on the behavior of the dogs in the “sport” of badger-baiting). Looks like a case of blaming the victim.
The badger grunting on his woodland track
With shaggy hide & sharp nose scrowed with black
Roots in the bushes & the woods & makes
A great hugh burrow in the ferns & brakes
With nose on ground he runs a awkard pace
& anything will beat him in the race
In his 1785 taxonomy, Linnaeus categorised the badger as meles meles. He mistakenly thought it was a species of small bear. In fact, it is part of the family Mustelidae, which also includes the otter, pine marten, stoat and mink. Like mygoodself, the badger is stockily built with relatively short and powerful legs and, unlike mygoodself, a short bushy tail.
The word “badger” may be a reference to the “badge” or striped face of the animal or may derive from the French becheur, to dig.
The Irish name is broc and appears in place names like Clonbrock, Co. Galway and Brocklagh, Co. Longford.
The old English name is brock.
My hero, Brian O’Nolan, wrote under many pseudonyms, mainly Flann O’Brien. One of his names was An Broc (The Badger).
Badgers travel in a slow ambling trot, reminiscent of a rhinoceros, pausing frequently to sniff the air and when alarmed they run for cover very quickly. Their sense of smell is important in communication and they even have scent glands in the anus.
The anthropomorphic notion of the badger’s constancy and kindness is probably mainly derived from Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful book The Wind in the Willows.
Mr Badger is the taciturn but authoritative leader of the group of animals who reform the boastful Toad. Is that not just like my good self?
I first read Wind in the Willows when I was a mixed junior under the tutelage of Sister Theresa. She was particularly taken with the line, “soft breezes caressed my heated brow” as an example of fine prose.
As an adult I can still read it with great enjoyment. Alan Bennett did an adaptation for the National Theatre (which made it seem very Alan Bennettish). I saw it twice and would be happy to see it again. I can’t remember who played Mr Badger. Richard Briers was Mr Rat.
Griff Rhys-Jones played Mr Toad and had difficulty carrying on at one point. Toad was debating whether to steal a motor car and a small voice called out from the audience: “Don’t! It’s naughty!”
There was a review in the New York Review of Books (Vol LVI No 13) about two annotated editions of Wind in the Willows – Annie Granger (Norton) and Seth Lerer (Harvard)
We first meet Mr Badger in Chapter 4. Rat and Mole have been lost in the snow in the ominous Wild Wood when they stumble upon Mr Badger’s abode and mole trips over the boot scraper, injuring his shin.
“The Badger, who wore a long dressing-gown, and whose slippers were indeed very down at heel, carried a flat candlestick in his paw and had probably been on his way to bed when their summons sounded. He looked kindly down on them and patted both their heads. `This is not the sort of night for small animals to be out,’ he said paternally. `I’m afraid you’ve been up to some of your pranks again, Ratty. But come along; come into the kitchen. There’s a first-rate fire there, and supper and everything.’
The kindly Badger thrust them down on a settle to toast themselves at the fire, and bade them remove their wet coats and boots. Then he fetched them dressing-gowns and slippers, and himself bathed the Mole’s shin with warm water and mended the cut with sticking-plaster till the whole thing was just as good as new, if not better. In the embracing light and warmth, warm and dry at last, with weary legs propped up in front of them, and a suggestive clink of plates being arranged on the table behind, it seemed to the storm-driven animals, now in safe anchorage, that the cold and trackless Wild Wood just left outside was miles and miles away, and all that they had suffered in it a half- forgotten dream.
When at last they were thoroughly toasted, the Badger summoned them to the table, where he had been busy laying a repast. They had felt pretty hungry before, but when they actually saw at last the supper that was spread for them, really it seemed only a question of what they should attack first where all was so attractive, and whether the other things would obligingly wait for them till they had time to give them attention. Conversation was impossible for a long time; and when it was slowly resumed, it was that regrettable sort of conversation that results from talking with your mouth full. The Badger did not mind that sort of thing at all, nor did he take any notice of elbows on the table, or everybody speaking at once. As he did not go into Society himself, he had got an idea that these things belonged to the things that didn’t really matter. (We know of course that he was wrong, and took too narrow a view; because they do matter very much, though it would take too long to explain why.) He sat in his arm-chair at the head of the table, and nodded gravely at intervals as the animals told their story; and he did not seem surprised or shocked at anything, and he never said, `I told you so,’ or, `Just what I always said,’ or remarked that they ought to have done so-and-so, or ought not to have done something else. The Mole began to feel very friendly towards him.
The Badger’s winter stores, which indeed were visible everywhere, took up half the room–piles of apples, turnips, and potatoes, baskets full of nuts, and jars of honey; but the two little white beds on the remainder of the floor looked soft and inviting, and the linen on them, though coarse, was clean and smelt beautifully of lavender; and the Mole and the Water Rat, shaking off their garments in some thirty seconds, tumbled in between the sheets in great joy and contentment.”
After the two animals are well rested…
“In accordance with the kindly Badger’s injunctions, the two tired animals came down to breakfast very late next morning, and found a bright fire burning in the kitchen, and two young hedgehogs sitting on a bench at the table, eating oatmeal porridge out of wooden bowls. The hedgehogs dropped their spoons, rose to their feet, and ducked their heads respectfully as the two entered.
`Where’s Mr. Badger?’ inquired the Mole, as he warmed the coffee- pot before the fire.
`The master’s gone into his study, sir,’ replied the hedgehog, `and he said as how he was going to be particular busy this morning, and on no account was he to be disturbed.’
This explanation, of course, was thoroughly understood by everyone present. The fact is, as already set forth, when you live a life of intense activity for six months in the year, and of comparative or actual somnolence for the other six, during the latter period you cannot be continually pleading sleepiness when there are people about or things to be done. The excuse gets monotonous. The animals well knew that Badger, having eaten a hearty breakfast, had retired to his study and settled himself in an arm-chair with his legs up on another and a red cotton handkerchief over his face, and was being `busy’ in the usual way at this time of the year.”
When relaxed badgers are quite noisy. Their hearing is acute. They are highly vocal and have a varied repertoire of sounds like purring, growling and screaming.
They are rarely seen alive because they are nocturnal. Their eyesight is poor but adapted to work in low light. They become torpid in cold weather but do not hibernate.
Males are called boars (note bores), females sows and offspring cubs. Pregnancy lasts about eight weeks and the sow is confined to a separate chamber in which the bedding is constantly renewed. Usually two or three cubs are born and they weigh about 100g each at birth. They are born blind and their eyes open at five weeks. The mothers feed them for 12 weeks but lactation can continue for five months
They are opportunistic feeders and will gorge themselves on whatever is available from sea shore to mountain top. I seem to recall that Mr Badger was fond of Garibaldi biscuits but in the wild they can eat 200 earth worms in a single night and are also happy with slugs, snails and beetles and a variety of berries and vegetable foods. They are also rather partial to rats and moles for supper.
There may be about 250,000 badgers in Ireland organised into 50,000 social groups. They live in complex underground tunnel systems called setts. Main setts have as many as 30 entrances and a number of smaller setts leading off from them. A sett near Dublin contained 25 chambers and 260 metres of tunnels and passages.
They are very social animals defending their communal areas, up to 200 hectares, against neighboring groups by a complex system of boundary latrine sentry posts at which scents are deposited. The usual number in a group is six but can be more than 20.
Badgers are compulsive and powerful diggers and spend a lot of time modifying and maintaining their homes. They are very fastidious and constantly renew their bedding.
The badger is totally protected in Ireland under Appendix III of the Bern convention. It does not seem to be an endangered species and changes in agricultural practices and afforestation may make more habitats suitable for them.
They are not universally popular because they have been blamed for spreading bovine tuberculosis. There are different schools of thought on this but it seems that about 20% of the badger population in Ireland may be infected and possibly up to 20% of TB outbreaks in cattle may be because of badgers. The development of a vaccine seems to be a more humane and feasible way of dealing with this than mass extermination of badgers.
It is sad that a creature as lovable and social as the badger should be persecuted by humans. Badger baiting is illegal but in a nationwide survey up to 22% of main setts seem to have been targeted.
John Clare wrote about badger-baiting:
When midnight comes a host of dogs and men
Go out and track the badger to his den,
And put a sack within the hole, and lie
Till the old grunting badger passes by
He comes an hears – they let the strongest loose
The old fox gears the noise and drops the goose.
The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry
And the old hare half wounded buzzes by.
They get a forked stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him to the town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
He runs along and bites at all he meets:
They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.
He turns about to face the loud uproar
And drives the rebels to their very door.
The frequent stone is hurled where’er they go;
When badgers fight, then everyone’s a foe.
The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray.
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.
The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,
Lies down and licks his feet and turns away.
The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold
The badger grins and never leaves his hold.
He drives the crowd and follows at their heels
And bites them through – the drunkard swears and reels
The frighted women take the boys away.
The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray.
He tries to reach the woods, and awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.
He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans, and dies.
The American badger looks a little different from the European badger (a bit heavier with a broader skull). In Africa, they have the honey badger which will endure hundreds of bee stings to obtain his favorite snack.
Homeland security – how can you not admire the way badgers defend their territory, by pissing at the sentry points. One has to have a lot of respect for a creature that can smell WITH its ass as well as HAVING a smelly ass?!
It was news to me that in American English “badger” is the nickname of inhabitants or natives of Wisconsin (1833).