Jason Goodwin: The foxes are unashamedly cocky – but the badgers are even worse

Our columnist takes a look at the new breed of foxes invading the countryside, and the havoc both they and the badgers are causing.

There’s a scene in one of Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ stories in which William, hearing that the evacuees from town are to get a jam tea, disguises himself as one of them.

To improve his chances, he affects complete ignorance of country life – ‘Wot’s cows, Mum?’ – which goes down very well until the kind lady suggests they all go out and sit on the grass, when he overplays his hand. ‘Wot’s grass, Mum?’ attracts her suspicion and leads to his unmasking.

‘Wot’s hens, Mum?’ is not a question I would have expected the local foxes to ask, yet our neighbour up the hill has had fox trouble of a novel sort: young bravos who wander around in broad daylight and take the bantams in the farmyard from right under her nose.

The local view is that they’re urban foxes taken from town and randomly dumped in the countryside. People don’t bother them in the least. They seem used to people and, far from being sly and quick as their country cousins are, they’re unashamedly cocky, even aggressive. Last week, she found one chewing on a lamb and it growled at her.

They’re not like William’s evacuees: they’re the terrible Connolly children from Put Out More Flags, whose behaviour is so appalling that Basil Seal turns the mere threat of billeting them on rural families into a source of income.

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“As children, we read stories in which Badger was a tweedy old gent of antiquarian tendencies, who kept a library and handed out marbles and sweets to young animals. These days he’d probably fail his DBS check”

They’re like the ‘cuckoos’ of provincial nightmare, vicious drug dealers from the big cities who move in on vulnerable addicts in country towns and use their digs as dens to deal from, before vanishing back to the big smoke. Dealers, like foxes, like a den.

The urban foxes, however, will not be returning to town. Our neighbour has taken to trapping them and dumping them a few miles away – driving them, in effect, from one tasty barnyard to another. It’s a kind of foxy Uber. Basil Seal would have a field day.

I wish badgers would spend more time in town. I chased a young one out of the chicken run the other night and nailed up more boards and wire next morning to keep him out – he’s more of a pest than the fox.

As children, we read stories in which Badger was a tweedy old gent of antiquarian tendencies, who kept a library and handed out marbles and sweets to young animals.

These days he’d probably fail his DBS check, but Alison Utley’s ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ stories, The Wind in the Willows and Trufflehunter from the ‘Narnia’ series were written when badgers were rare and, being rare, lived solitary lives.

A badger. Picture: Andy Ballard via pixabay.com

They were rare because farmers shot them on sight. Badgers eventually became so rare that the Earl of Arran, who also championed the decriminalisation of homosexuality, sponsored a Bill for their protection in the House of Lords in 1968.

It was said at the time that he wanted one Bill to stop people badgering buggers and another to stop buggering badgers. When asked why the one bill succeeded, but the other failed, he famously replied that there weren’t many badgers in the Lords.

Protection finally came in the 1990s, since when it has emerged that badgers, given a chance, prefer to live hugger-mugger in sprawling setts, sallying forth in packs to predate on small animals, ground-nesting birds and bees, frogs and snails, adding hens if they can get them. The hedgehog population has, consequently, collapsed.

I can admire a fox, but badgers are all claw, jaw and sharp teeth. Only one author has perfectly captured the combination of brute strength and low habits that makes Tommy Brock such an objectionable neighbour – and Beatrix Potter wasn’t soft on foxes, either.

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