Gertie's Story: the resilience of wildlife

| 27th June 2016
After weeks of worry, it looks now as if Gertie's wounds have healed, the snare is gone and she has even had cubs
Anti badger culling campaigner Lesley Docksey tells a very personal story of her relationship with the badgers that live near to her home and come there to feed including one that miraculously survived the cruelty of a snare trap
Word had got out and there was a badger party every night, with badgers popping in and out of the hedge, jostling each other, having arguments over the nuts, which meant chasing each other around the field before all coming back to go on feeding

Last year, among the badgers who visited my garden, three stood out.  There was Wonky, so called because it had a very crooked tail. Wonky was also very laid back, liked to lie (not sit) down to eat and would ‘zap' my back door in the hope of more peanuts. The other two came as a pair and fed together.

All three would come to the sound of peanuts hitting the ground and, despite my efforts not to get too close to these wild animals, would come right up to my feet - and shock themselves when they realised the feet belonged to a human. This willingness to approach turned out to be a boon.

In the autumn all three disappeared and the population of the nearby sett seemed to change. Bigger and much shyer badgers took their place. They came every night for nuts but the slightest sound of the door being opened and they would flee. I missed my friendly trio, although I was cheered in the spring by the sight of two healthy cubs, the first I had seen for three years.

One night in the middle of May I looked out and saw three badgers that looked familiar.  I opened the back door and all three came trotting over.  My friends were back from wherever they had been living, and for the next 15 minutes I tossed out nuts, grapes and anything else I could lay my hands on while I said ‘Welcome home.' Only one thing was troubling - one of the pair looked like she had a collar round her neck.

Two nights later I confirmed what I had feared; she had a snare round her neck. Snares are wicked things, and the damage animals do to themselves while they struggle to get free is bloody and at times horrific.  But somehow this badger had got free, even if it still wore the snare.

I had always thought the two smaller badgers were female and possibly sisters, so halfway through this process I named the snared badger Gertie and her companion/sister Maud. I was hedging my bets here. Badgers can be very difficult to sex just by looking at them.  If I was wrong they could always become Bertie and Claude!

Gertie needed to see a vet and have the snare removed. There was a danger she could be hooked up on a tree root or the wound around her neck become infected. By the next day I had arranged for badger vaccinators to bring cage-traps over and put them in my garden along the hedge.  Gertie made it easy.  She was arriving early for food, well before the big badgers came.

The very first night the traps were in place and baited but not set, Gertie and Wonky arrived. After a bit of gentle steering, Gertie went in a cage and found PEANUTS. Wonky was still trying to get some food from near the house and very disappointed by that night's catering.

On the second night Gertie went right into the cage and had a good meal.  She seemed in good health and not hampered by the snare, but it was clear she needed help - there was fresh blood around her neck where she had been clawing at the snare.

Word had got out and there was a badger party every night, with badgers popping in and out of the hedge, jostling each other, having arguments over the nuts, which meant chasing each other around the field before all coming back to go on feeding

May 19. Just three nights after I had confirmed the snare, she was trapped. The next cage had one of the cubs in it and neither were pleased.  I freed the cub, put some extra food in Gertie's cage and covered it with a rug to help calm her down. It didn't. Having been caught by a snare and then trapped in a cage must have been traumatic for her.

Early next morning the vaccinators arrived to take her to the vet. I had been ready to help put the cage-trap into their vehicle, but they had brought with them a large carry cage, a top-load carry cage. It proved impossible to safely transfer her from one cage to the other and she escaped, running away across the field escorted by one of my cats.

I was in despair, and if I'm honest, not a little angry.

There followed days of baiting the cages every night, spending a fortune on peanuts, setting up cameras in the hope Gertie would be filmed going into the cages. The behaviour of all the badgers changed. I'd not seen the cubs since one was trapped. The big boys came early and cleaned out every cage. On several occasions there were two of them stuffed into one cage, and one night I saw four badgers trying to get in.

Gertie and Maud came much later and got what was left. I only clearly saw Gertie twice, still okay but still with the snare in situ, and each time she was eating outside the cages. I tried putting some of her favourite foods around and in one of the cages, in the hope I could tempt her back into going in on a regular basis.

The vaccinators wanted to simply trap all the badgers. I pointed out that four cages would not be nearly enough. Word had got out and there was a badger party every night, with badgers popping in and out of the hedge, jostling each other, having arguments over the nuts, which meant chasing each other around the field before all coming back five minutes later to go on eating nuts. There were now about 10 badgers coming. Gertie couldn't compete.

May 25.  I went back to square one and put a saucer of very tempting food out near where she used to eat.  She found it and she was close enough for me to see that the snare was still in place.  I discovered that some of her favourites were ignored by the others, but that didn't help.  I thought I saw her one night half in a cage, but I couldn't be sure. What the cameras were recording was inconclusive.  It was disheartening.

June 7, 1:30 am. 10 days since I had last seen her close to - and there she was.

After sitting out waiting and watching for two hours, and getting cold, I had gone to bed.  But I was so chilled I couldn't sleep, and I went downstairs to boil the kettle.  I looked out the window and there were Gertie and Maud.  I opened the door and they both came over.  I couldn't believe it.  It seemed the snare had disappeared!  Amid showers of nuts, grapes and gratitude I took some photos.  And went back to bed happy.

The next morning I was not quite so relieved.  The photos showed that, yes, she had removed most of the snare, but there were still wires across the back of her neck among the scabs and blood.  She had obviously been scratching at the remains and was still trying to rid herself of it all.  But her whole face, which had looked a bit battered and bruised when she first turned up, was much better and she was very healthy and active.

June 10.  One of the possible problems she faced could be that some of the wire might become embedded under her skin.  Two nights later I could see that down both sides of her neck were strips of new, clean, healthy skin; no discolouration, no swelling, no infection.  Nor were there ridges under the skin, so no embedded wire there. All this was good.  And I could only see one small glint of silver wire along the back of her neck.

The night after that there was no wire left, just a broad strip of raw skin right across the back of her neck, and that was already scabbing over.

I had been trying to get Gertie and Maud to feed at the top of the garden because that is where they come through the fence (the bigger badgers all come in elsewhere).  Then, hopefully, we could put cage-traps up there just for Gertie and Maud.  But three nights in a row they ignored the food, and with little warning the vaccinators said they wanted to place the traps there that night and set them for trapping three days later. But the badgers weren't even looking for food there yet, and I still had not physically seen Gertie going into and feeding in a cage.

One cannot rush animals, wild or tame.  So Gertie and I were on our own.

June 13.  More feeding and more torchlight scrutiny.  But what I saw was encouraging.  The clean new skin on either side of Gertie's neck was slowly disappearing under the fur, there was no sign that she had been scratching at her neck and, best of all, the wide scab across the back of her neck had closed to a thin scab.

And then it rained.  Every night.  The garden and the fields were sodden and the badgers were far more occupied in feeding on a glut of worms.  My garden with its generous supply of peanuts dropped from being the first port of call to the last on the list.  Each night I put out food and each morning the dishes were empty, but never a badger did I see.

June 19.  I saw Gertie and Maud by the hedge.  A handful of nuts brought Maud over, followed by Gertie.  I wished it was Maud I was trying to monitor.  She gets stuck into her dish and pretty well stays there until she's finished.  Gertie is all over the place, constantly changing position, and I have taken far too many photos of grass with one foot or half a back end in them.

But I coaxed her forward with more nuts and the best treat of all - chipolatas.  And finally, as she bent her head down right in front of me, I saw what I had been looking for.  The thin scab had gone and been replaced by a narrow line of new skin, clean and healthy.  And for several days now there has been no sign of blood anywhere on her neck, so no more scratching at foreign bodies.

I will go on monitoring her until all the fur has grown back and I have difficulty telling her and Maud apart.  But last night she had one more surprise in store for me.  When I downloaded more photos and studied them, in a side shot of Gertie I saw a prominent nipple.  This brave and resilient little badger had also had cubs, perhaps the two which had come to my garden.

Very definitely Gertie, not Bertie!

The Author:

Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who writes for The Ecologist and other media on the badger cull and other environmental topics, and on political issues for UK and international websites.


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