Dark encounter

A summer evening walk on the South Downs turns into a wildlife encounter in the dark.

My summer walk along the crest of the South Downs set me up for an enjoyable evening meal at the Devils Dyke. I took the precaution of bringing a torch for my return walk, but paths on the downlands of southern England are easy to follow in the dark; they shine out as white pathways of exposed chalk. A fresh, starlit summer evening, and the comfort of a good meal gave me reason to be content with my day.

Darkness does not easily scare me, so the silhouette moving across the field to my left raised vigilant apprehension rather than fear. Nevertheless, when a second shadow joined it I slowed my pace and proceeded with greater caution. If they were cats, they were larger than I had ever seen. Stories of larger members of the cat family surround many uncultivated areas of Britain, though not the South Downs as far as I know. Darkness lends special significance to unidentified shapes; so I stopped. The two creatures continued their course, which would cross the chalk path a few yards in front of me. I preferred not to meet them head on.

I am fascinated with wildlife though, like most people who live and work in town, my knowledge of the native fauna of my home country is largely theoretical. England's few remaining wild mammals have survived by avoiding direct encounters with humans, so they are rarely seen in the wild. I knew just what a badger looked like - provided it was displayed in a perfect pose with its black-and-white snout looking out of the picture; so it took several minutes for me to realise what I was seeing.

Both badgers reached the path and turned in my direction. This was the point when they would look like the pictures I had seen, and it could only last a few seconds. I switched on the torch, bringing them to a briefly frozen pose before they made off to the right and disappeared down the hill. My first, privileged encounter with wild badgers gave me a thrill that lightened my steps on the remaining two miles of my summer evening walk.

© Derrick Phillips - 2000