Life and Status
In Britain and the UK
Badgers (Meles meles) have lived in Britain for at least 250,000 years. The latest surveys show that there could be about 400,000 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. Despite a long history of persecution by the Irish government, badgers are present on the island of Ireland; although the "Irish" badgers are now a genetically distinct population from those of England Wales and Scotland.
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 the flatter parts of East Anglia. However, they will excavate setts within higher level ground as this means that there tunnels will not be flooded by rising groundwater levels in the time of flood.
It is important to realize that which badger clans like to maintain their own territories; a single badger territory which is totally isolated will not usually survive for many generations. Therefore, in those ares with low badger numbers, you may well find localised areas where there are collections of adjacent badger territories. For example, there may be small numbers of badgers in the overall Scottish Highlands, but there may well be pockets of badger clans in river valleys which are close to mixed or deciduous woodland and farmland or other grassland.
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 less common in those areas with 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.
Evening emergence from the sett is driven, it seems, by the desire to find their main foodsource - the earthworm. Earthworms tend to come out in the late evening to breed away from the drying heat of the sun; and badgers eat earthworms in huge numbers.
Badgers will often remain close to the sett to forage for an hour or so, before moving off to forage elsewhere. Note that the actual emergence time may vary widely - especially if there is noise, damage or disturbance at or near the sett; or if there is very adverse weather (torrential rain or very windy/gusty conditions).
Females and subordinate badgers tend to use only a part of the overall territory/home range of the whole clan. It is suggested that they are mostly concerned with the need to feed; and the remainder of the teritory is of less use to them if they have had enough to eat close to their home sett.
Dominant males tend to use a much greater proportion of the home range/territory and their use seems more to coincide with the need to feed, to find mates from nearby clans and to scent mark the territory as their own. Dominant males will still try to do this scent marking in the winter; although they seem to travel to the scent marking points with greater urgency in the winter.
In a very real sense, a badger clan and its territory/home range is maintained by the combination of scent marking by dominant badger(s) and the use of certain feeding locations by other members. Without the presence of a dominant animal; the stability and reliability of badger "society" is at risk. There is a serious argumant that human-based disturbance to badger society gives rise to far more harm to the wider ecological picture than a simple reduction in badger numbers might suggest.
Badgers tend to emerge just before dusk from May to August and after dusk for the rest of the year. They tend to spend more time above ground in the summer than in the winter.
Whilst badgers do not hibernate; they may remain in their setts for periods in the winter. In the UK, they may not emerge for several days; and may even use one or two special underground latrines in long periods of extreme cold. During this time, known as a winter torpor, they will metabolise their fat reserves and they may experience a slightly reduced body temperature a slower heartrate (this may conserve their fat reserves).
However, certainly in the UK, badgers can and do emerge in some parts of the winter season and badger footprints are found sporadically in snow and ice around active badger setts in most winter months.
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!
From the standpoint of colour and patter, males and female badgers look very much alike; although males have thinner tails.
As animals who spend a lot of their life outdoors in different clmatic seasons, badgers undergo a moult as their coat changes from one season to another. In simple terms, badgers generally have a thick winter coat, a thinner summer coat and a light autumn coat. There is a single moult each year. This starts in the spring when they shed their shorter underfur and the longer guard hairs. The moult starts from the back of the neck and shoulders and then progresses backwards to the flanks. In the summer there is some re-growth to their fur - this starting with the guard hairs followed by the shoter underfur; This re-growth starts at the back and moves fowards; and is complete by the autumn.
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.
Badgers may be very concerned with new sounds; but will often get used to them if they have heard them before without adverse effect. The authoer has observed badgers utterly unconcerned with the noise of motrbikes loudly racing by, as well as badgers feeding more or less under church bells which were being rung and loud fireworks which were being let off.
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 are also good at climbing. They will readily climb trees to get to ripe fruit; and many domstic fences pose little barrier to a badger if it really wants to get to the other side.
Although badgers do not generally seem to like swimming; they will take to water and can swim through water if it not too fast slowing. Whilst wide canals and rivers may appear to form a barrier to badgers; they will usually make use of any wide bridges or quiet tunnels/underpasses if they are available.
Badgers can usually get themselves out of garden ponds and rivers, but canals and swimming pools can be a problem if they can not get out if the sides are too smooth. In such circumstances, the poor badger can end up drowning due to exhaustion.
Many badgers die in their first year of life. In fact, out of every three badger cubs born, two may die before they become one year old. Some very young small cubs may die due to the effects of being severely weakened by parasites (internal and external), whereas others may be predated by dogs or foxes; and other may die if their mother (on whom they remain dependent) dies or is killed in the spring or summer
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 (less than about 1%).
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 - one of the most common being starvation, followed by road traffic accidents and illegal persecution.
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.