Badgers on the Green

I have been a greenkeeper at the John O Gaunt Golf Course in Bedfordshire for nearly 27 years. During that time, aside from my normal greenkeeping duties such as cutting greens or raking bunkers, I have been responsible for looking after the wildlife and conservation side of things. Golf courses are often perceived as a blot on the landscape and no good for wildlife, but I have been able to prove beyond any doubt that this is not the case. I have recorded almost 100 species of birds, 21 species of mammals, eight species of bats, 21 species of butterfly, 353 species of moths, 12 species of dragonflies, 135 species of fungi and other insects such as spiders and bush crickets.

My passion for the flora and fauna at John O Gaunt has resulted in much media attention for the club through TV, local radio and local newspapers. It has also brought recognition to our conservation work and has helped the club win local and national awards. In the Golf Environment Awards, we won a Nature Conservation Award in 2012 and the Operation Pollinator Award in 2017. The club has also been a runner up in Environmental Course Of The Year and I have been a runner up in Conservation Greenkeeper of the year in 2015, 2016, 2017 before finally winning it in 2018. The club won the CPRE mark (top/gold award) in the CPRE Bedfordshire Living Countryside Awards in 2014.

Out of all the wildlife on the golf course, there is one animal that I love more than all the others. The badger! A nocturnal animal that many people just don’t get to see unless its dead at the side of the road, a victim of our increasingly busy roads. Badgers are beautiful animals and I will never understand just why they suffer from so much persecution. I always get great enjoyment when I see them and love to share this passion with others. Badgers have been on the golf course longer than I have been there, but I only started to watch them relatively recently. In the beginning I spent time sat on my own in my car or work vehicle or sometimes with friends. I did not see any badgers but often heard them.

But over the last five years, in a small wood on the course, the badgers have been exceedingly busy digging many new holes, as well as re-digging old ones. This presented a new opportunity to watch them. In 2015 the badgers dug some holes right on the edge of the wood, creating huge piles of soil. Given the interest that members have shown in the general wildlife on the course, I thought it might be a good idea to do a few badger watches. It was early August and I initially picked two dates. The email went out to everybody on a Friday and the first two dates were fully booked within 24 hours. I couldn’t believe it! I picked two more dates, which were also fully booked after two days. I ended up doing a badger watch once a week during August and September, as well as a few extra dates to make sure as many people could come as possible. It was a fantastic time, where we saw up to eight badgers on one night.

In 2016 I ran the badger watches again for the members during August and September. After the success of the previous year I did wonder whether it would continue or was it a one off. I need not have worried. All the dates booked quickly. People here at John O Gaunt certainly care about these wonderful animals. I always ask people at the beginning of the evening if they have ever seen a badger before. The reply is usually yes, a dead one on the road. So I change the question to: has anyone seen a live badger before? The answer is often no and then they go away at the end of the night seeing five or six. People always leave with a smile on their face and it's especially good to see children coming along and taking an interest.

One quote from a member in 2016 that I will never forget, makes this all worthwhile. After never seeing a live badger before and seeing six at the Badger Watch, the member told me that it was ‘a memorable experience, one I will never forget’.

I really am in such a privileged position by being able to view these animals at such close quarters. As of 2016, people now sit on chairs laid out around my work vehicle with a spotlight (see photo). I also often use a trail cam in the wood just before I do the watches, to see how active the badgers are and to gauge what time they will come out.

I occasionally do badger watches in April on my own or with friends and on one occasion in 2016 I saw six feeding together about 6ft away from where we were sat. You can even see the edge of my wing mirror, so you can see how close we were. The badger watches continued to be as successful in 2017 and below are two quotes from members that came along…

Jan Murphy: Badger watch experience: It was just amazing to see these incredible creatures so close in natural surroundings instead of dead at the side of the road. Plus, the 'peanut butter sandwiches' - who would have thought it! Yes would be good to give them some 'individual identity' through their markings - like 'Patch’.

Mike Morris: During the past couple of years, I have attended about six badger watches organised by Steve Thompson in his own time and with no cost to the watchers, seeing a minimum of five badgers on each visit. It is indeed a privilege to sit quietly by the sett at dusk and see these iconic creatures come to feed at proximity, realising that an audience is present but not seeing us as any kind of threat. Thanks to Steve's feeding regime we are at times within six feet of the badgers with no problems for usually about ninety minutes before they move off to fresh pastures. I never tire of sitting there, sometimes in the rain and cold without having an expectation that one is going to witness something very special. I am already looking forward to attending next year’s watches".

I do all the badger watches in my own time and I do not charge any money. All I suggest is that if people have had a good time and enjoyed the badgers, then they could donate money to the Badger Trust or donate some peanuts for the badgers' food.

I feed the badgers about one hour before the watch is due to start and only feed them when I do the badger watches - not for the rest of the year. I begin the feeding about one hour before the watch is due to start.

Steve Thompson

Greenskeeper, John O Gaunt Golf Course

April 2018