Life and Status
Badgers (Meles meles) have lived in Britain for at least 250,000 years. The latest surveys show that there are between about 250,000 and 310,000 badgers in the UK (living in about 80,000 family groups). They are unevenly distributed across the country. The effects of persecution and changing land use mean that they have almost disappeared from some areas.
For more on the pre-history of badgers see Latin Stuff.
Badgers do occur across most of the UK, but the highest population densities are generally across and south-west of England. By comparison, there are relatively few badgers in the Northern part of Scotland (although there are some if you know where to look). There are badgers living on the larger islands - including the Isle of Wight, Anglesey and Skye. They do not generally like large wetland areas or low-lying plains, so are relatively scarce in East Anglia.
In the UK the badgers main food source is the earthworms; and this does not thrive in acidic soils. For this reason the badger is rare in those areas which acidic peaty soils, such as parts of the Pennines and Scotland. They are sparse in mountainous and moorland terrain too.
Badgers are nocturnal and rarely seen during the day. When not active, badgers usually lie up in an extensive system of underground tunnels and nesting chambers, known as a sett. Occasionally, when the weather is particularly hot, badgers may briefly come above ground during daytime.
This is normally as an act of desperation, as they will be trying to get water to drink. The kindest thing you can probably do for them is to leave out a large metal tray of fresh, clean water; as this will help stop them getting even more dehydrated.
Badgers take considerable care over their grooming. Scent plays an important part in the social hierarchy too. Adults set scent on each other and on cubs - in this way a composite smell characteristic of the whole community can create the smell of the group. This smell will be different from that of neighbouring groups and helps recognition of friends and strangers. Adults are at their lowest weight in the spring as territorial behaviour by the boars and suckling by the sows will have reduced their stored fat to a minimum.
Badgers are social animals, often living in large groups of adults and young. They are nocturnal, which means they usually leave their setts at dusk or later. They emerge cautiously, sniffing and listening for signs of danger. Once they are sure it is safe, they leave to groom, play and forage.
Colouration (aka pelage)
The most striking thing about the badger is its black-and-white striped face. The badger's back and sides appear grey, and the throat, legs and belly are black. Not all badgers look like this though! Occasionally, white near-albino badgers are found. These badgers have no colour to their fur, so appear almost completely white. They also have pink eyes!
Although badgers are generally clean-living animals, they can sometimes pick up the colour of the earth in which they live - this explains why some badgers sometimes appear to have a reddish or brownish colour - perhaps they just need a good wash!
The badger's eyes are quite small, and its eyesight is not particularly good.Also, like many other animals, badgers cannot see anything in colour, only black, grey and white.
Whilst they cannot see details very well, they can make out shapes, and movements.
Cubs do not open their eyes until they are 5 weeks old.
The white ears of the badger look quite small too, but the badger has very good hearing.
The badger uses its ears to listen for danger, and also to help with finding food.
Their hearing is not as acute as that of a fox, but they are well able to detect quiet sounds; and determine which ones are of concern from those which are not.
Sense of Smell
In part to make up for its poor eyesight, the badger has a very good sense of smell.
You can tell that it must have a good sense of smell, of you look at the skeleton of a badger head. The muzzle of a badger has a large opening for the nose. The nasal cavity includes large numbers of complex scroll bones (called turbinals) which provide evidence of their excellent sense of smell. Their sensitive nose can gather and identify every scent - even if it is very faint.
It is thought that the badger's sense of smell is 700 to 800 times better than ours! This means that badgers can smell many things that we cannot. They use their sense of smell to find their way around, and to find food. Badgers can also recognise each other by smell. They will also be able to smell humans from a long way away; and this may cause them alarm; if they are not used to the scent of that particular human.
Badgers usually walk or trot, but they can run when they need to. Badgers are also good at climbing, and they can swim too.
Hints and Tips
If you are ever invited to go on a badger watch, you need to be extremely careful about what you wear, and where you stand. Badgers can hear noisy clothing from a long way off, and they will certainly be able to smell you if you are hiding upwind from where they are - this is especially true if you are wearing any type of perfume or after-shave. Whilst the cautious badger might not be able to see exactly what you are, it may well be able to tell if you move. You will need to be downwind, unperfumed, silent, still and patient.
Many badgers die in their first year of life. In fact, out of every three badger cubs born, two will die before they become one year old.
Those cubs who survive to become adults have a good chance of living for several years. Many will go on to ages of between five and eight years old before they die. Very few wild badgers live to be 15 though.
Badgers in captivity live longer. The oldest badger on record was a captive animal. She was 19 years and six months old when she died.
For badgers in the wild, there are many causes of death.