Badgers

The Eurasion badger (Meles meles) has been present in Britain for thousands of years. Since the demise of the wolf and the bear in the UK, man and his actions remain the badger's biggest threat. In the 1800's badgers were thought to be practically extinct in Westmoreland, Cumberland, Northumberland and Durham and in the 1900's they started to recover as gamekeeper pressure reduced. The behaviour described in this website is relevant to the UK, for instance where it is common for badgers to play, groom and socialise on emergence from their setts, badgers in Poland (where there are still wolves and bears) do not, they shoot out of their setts like bullets! We also find that the setts in North East England are not as big as those found in the south of England.

Habits

Badgers belong to the weasel family (Mustelidae) all of which are carnivorous and have a musk gland underneath the tail. Although the badger slightly bucks this classification by being omnivorous, which is borne out by their diet and the configuration of their teeth.

Badgers live in social groups (clans or family groups) in a hierarchy and are territorial. The size of the group and the territory depends on a number of things, such as the size and quality of the foraging area, the availability of suitable ground to dig into and the vicinity of other groups. A group could comprise between 3 and 20 badgers, with an average of about 6.

The group's territory could be anything from 30 acres to about 175 acres, or even greater, around 400-700 acres in the north of Scotland where foraging can be in poor marginal areas. Badgers can be found on suitable ground up to about 500m. They are mostly absent from areas such as fenlands.

Badgers are nocturnal, but in quiet places will emerge in the early evening. They build up fat stores in the autumn. They do not hibernate during the winter but their activity is curtailed (especially December/January) and during particularly bad weather, heavy frosts etc. They can probably manage without food for up to 5 days. As they are adapted to living underground they have a low metabolic rate and during the winter their body temperature is low.

At any time of the year, they do not particularly like windy/storm conditions.

Numbers

The UK badger population is estimated at between 250,000 - 310,000 (80,000 family groups) if anyone has more up to date information we would be interested in hearing from you! Around 50,000 badgers are killed on our roads each year; foraging areas are lost to the expansion of our towns and villages; setts are recklessly and sometimes criminally destroyed by land managers/owners; and sadly sadistic 'sportsmen' still take and maim an estimated 10,000 badgers to put against fighting dogs. A badger may live up to 10 years, usually about 7 years (exceptionally 15 years in captivity). A good percentage of cubs do not make it to their 1st year. As an average you might have 10 adults per sq. kilometre but this could be a lot more or a lot less depending on the quality of the foraging and locations of surrounding territories.

Size

The average length of a badger is 686-803mm (males) and 673-787mm (females) and weight 9.1-16.7kg (male), 6.5-13.9kg (female) [courtesy of Ernest Neal] but there may be 'local' average sizes depending on age, quality of foraging, time of year, size of clan etc. In any event the female is narrower all round.

Physical Characteristics

The badger is physically strong and even though its legs are short, can run quite quickly, although the motion looks more like a 'glide' when trotting. Despite not really being the right size or shape, the badger is capable of climbing trees and fences when motivated. Their feet are padded with five toes, the front feet are larger than the rear. The front are equipped with large claws. The claws are used for digging and defence.

Badgers have a strong bite and they bite each other on the rump during serious disagreements and expulsions.

The male skull is slightly domed and they have a sagittal crest (bone crest).

Coat

The badgers striped face was probably a warning flash to predators. Its hair is coarse comprising guard hairs (90-100mm long) - the strands have flat sides (unlike ours which feels round when you roll a strand between your fingers); during winter they have an under-fur. Mostly appearing grey/black, occasionally they will be a ginger/brown or even an albino.

Senses

Badgers have an excellent sense of smell, and the end of their long snout is quite rubbery so it can be curled back when foraging on the ground. They are also able to 'block' their nostrils making them perfectly designed to cope with digging underground.

Their sight isn't too good and they are sometimes spooked by an unusual sillouette or movement. They probably see in shades of white, black and grey, not colour. They have whiskers on the snout and above their small eyes which probably act as a guide when in tight dark spaces. Their ears are also small, set on the side of their heads; their hearing is quite good and they seem to get used to consistent noise if they are situated near a quarry for instance.

They also have glands in the anus, between the tail and anus and between their toes which are used for scent-marking paths and territories.

Diet & Feeding

Their diet is omnivorous and worms predominate, so short grass/pasture is important. Other food will include insects, wasp nests, larvae, berries/fruit fall, bulbs, young rabbits, some cereal crops and young birds.

Periods of drought are particularly difficult times for badgers when worms are driven deep underground and that might be a time when they venture into gardens to take advantage of any opportunity. Their teeth reflect the diet, having incisors and canines for cutting and premolars and molars for grinding. When foraging they can be completely oblivious to how much noise they make charging through undergrowth and slurping up worms! You can often see where they've been feeding by the presence of 'snuffle holes' and flipped cow pats.

Latrines

For a lot of us interested in badgers, the discovery of a fresh pile of dung can be quite exciting, not least because it is evidence the badger is active in the area. Most often it looks like a dark brown dollop or soft dog faeces dropped into a hole dug for the purpose. The colour and consistency changes in relation to its diet, so it's quite obvious when they have been feeding on corn or fruit. One hole may contain more than one deposit. A latrine usually comprising a number of holes is often located near to a sett area. During the spring especially, latrines are used to mark territory boundaries.

Home sweet Home

Badgers are fossorial (they dig) and live in setts - a series of tunnels and chambers underground which they engineer and dig. Setts can be found in woods, railway embankments, quarries, even drainage pipes and relatively flat fields. Often dug into slopes with 'protection' above (e.g. tree roots).

There might be only 1 or 2 holes or 10 to 15 holes - more even - but they won't necessarily all be 'in use' at any one time.


There is often more than 1 sett in a particular group's territory - a main sett which is usually the sett where the cubs will be born; a subsidiary/outlier sett which might be used by a male who has been ejected during spring when the cubs are born; or if the badgers' main sett has been disturbed; or if its more convenient for a particular food source.

Other odd holes might be used as 'bolt holes' if a badger is caught out or needs a place of refuge. Over time, a subsidiary sett may also become a 'nursery' sett and there might be more than one subsidiary.

Some of these setts are connected by very clear paths.

It's probable that urban badgers mark and defend the immediate sett area rather than a territory as food resources are limited.

In other parts of the country the designation of main, subsidiary, outlier, secondary setts might be slightly different to how we describe northern badgers organise themselves.

Badgers are clean animals and bedding is regularly turned out, aired and replaced, probably to get rid of parasites. The spoil heaps can be huge. They'll use grasses, leaves and heather etc, gathering it up, then dragging it to the sett using their forelegs and chins by going in reverse. Bones of badgers and other things might be found in the spoil. The sett is designed to allow aeration and this may be achieved by having entrances at different depths but also cleverly by creating 'airholes'. Please do not trample or disturb sett areas.

There may be a furrow in it where the soil has been dragged away from the entrance and the whole heap could weigh several tonnes.

An entrance is generally about the same size as a piece of A4 landscape paper but can be bigger. An active established entrance is free of debris and smooth with a mound of spoil infront. The spoil is sometimes quite compacted with vegetation growth. Occasionally they seem improbably squeezed between the roots of a tree. Sometimes there is little spoil.

Don't be fooled by rabbits - they can also create a lot of spoil - check the size of the tunnel and is the ground littered with their little droppings? A fox may also use a disused part of a sett and they seem to tolerate each other, although probably not so well when either has young cubs.

Depending on the terrain, the tunnels can be dug anywhere from 1m to 4m deep and a large sett can cover an area of up to 35m x 15m. They create chambers, tunnel junctions and passing places! Looking into an entrance, it may split into 2 tunnels quite near the opening, or one tunnel may turn off almost at right angles. The chambers might hold 2 badgers.

Setts can exist in the same spot (despite interference) for decades, centuries even.

Procreation

A group can comprise males and females of varying ages. Males reach sexual maturity at about 24 months and females maybe 12-15 months. Although there will often be an alpha-boar, all mature males will try their chances to mate given the opportunity and it may suit a sow to have all the boars thinking the cubs are theirs! Neighbouring males might also successfully mate in another territory, but the price paid by these might be a savage beating and serious injuries.

It stands to reason mature badgers may well leave to create territories of their own or take over a neighbouring vacancy.

To give the cubs the best opportunity, they are born early in the year so that they are big enough to cope with their first winter.

Mating takes place at any time, (mostly between February and April), and any fertilised eggs (blastocysts) are held in suspended animation until the shortest days of the year (December) when the fertilised eggs implant into the wall of the uterus and start to develop. The cubs are born eight weeks later (mid February), but in some years it may be earlier or later and in other years no cubs appear - that might have something to do with quality of foraging/drought/disturbance etc. Amazingly, because of the delayed implantation, it is perfectly feasible for a litter to have more than one father!

During this period the boar and others are often 'turfed out' of the main 'nursery' sett.

Usually 2 or 3 cubs are born pink/grey with very pale markings, about 12cm long and with closed eyes. They are suckled underground for up to 8 weeks and are weaned at 12 weeks and they will get their adult teeth in the next few weeks. When they emerge from the sett, they have their full markings and are supervised closely by the sow and other group members during the Spring. Hopefully they will weigh about 10kg by the winter but its thought about 60% don't make their 1st birthday (mostly male).

Dry Springs pose a problem for badgers, the worms aren't available and there are no berries or much in the way of crops, so they are forced to forage further afield, leading to an increase in road casualties, also there might not be enough to sustain a sow feeding cubs, leading to the deaths of both.

A year in the life of a badger

January: Activity quite low, especially in heavy frosts. But it can be fun following tracks in the snow!

February: Cubs are born. Mating begins with a vengeance. Territories are marked.

March: Clearing out and collecting loads of bedding becomes obvious on spoil heaps.

April: Cubs come out.

May: Loads more mating and the cubs become more active.

June: Emergence early in quiet place and cubs forage with sow.

July: Lots of foraging.

August: Foraging might include cereal crops, especially during drought.

September: More matings! Lots of housekeeping, digging setts and collecting of bedding.

October: Diet includes berries and nuts and they put on lots of weight.

November: Food is harder to find, emergence is later.

December: Lots of sleeping. Blastocysts implanted.