Many people may never see a wild badger; many others will only see it as a dead creature lying by the side of the road. But if you take some time to find a sett, and creep into the woods as evening approaches, then with a little luck you will catch a glimpse of Britain's largest surviving carnivore. The sight of that sensitive nose emerging to carefully test the air, followed by the striped head, captivates watchers again and again. It is a sight that remains with people all their lives and is often a starting point of a lifetime's involvement for thousands of people who have fallen under its spell.
The Eurasian Badger (Meles meles), is the animal familiar to the UK. They are carnivores by classification yet are omnivores by habit, eating both animal and plant material. This is reflected in their back teeth which are greatly modified for crushing and grinding. They weigh on average around 22 lb. (10kg) with a length of around 3.3ft (1 metre). The weights vary between the sexes with males usually being just over 2 lb. (1 kg) heavier than the females, weights also vary considerably throughout the year. They are heaviest toward the end of Autumn when they have the most fat reserves, and food is most difficult to find. They are extraordinary diggers and their strong front claws, backed up by powerful shoulder muscles, help them dig their sometimes huge setts, and assist in digging for food such as wasps' nests and grubs. They have been known to move a boulder weighing 55 lb. (25 kg.) to get at food underneath it!
Badgers don't usually live longer than 10 years in the wild; captive animals have lived for as long as 19 years, but this is exceptional. It is possible to tell something of a badger's age from looking at tooth wear. A badger's diet includes a large amount of earthworms and during feeding the earth causes the white enamel of their teeth to wear down from an early age.
The most striking feature of the badger is its head stripe. Not only is it usually the first thing to be seen when looking for a badger in the woods, but it is often the only visible part of the animal that moves through the darkness. Its primary function would appear to be that of a warning to potential aggressors, however, occasionally a badger will cover its stripes with its paws or run away with its head held low. These actions seem to be the reverse of an aggressive stance and appear to indicate that at times discretion is the better part of valour.
Badgers have an extraordinary sense of smell and indeed much of their lifestyle is governed by the information they receive through their nose. This includes, searching for food, recognising danger, identifying other members of their group or intruders from other areas, and finding their way around their territory. Their snout is relatively large and flexible, so that they are able to move it out of the way when foraging for food. This enables them to use their teeth to tear up bulbs or catch grubs, while at the same time avoiding any damage to their sensitive nose.
Badgers eat a wide variety of food, though earthworms make up about half of their intake. Other foods include insects and their grubs, fruits and berries, small mammals which they can dig up and in autumn grain from the fields. Their catholic diet and ability to cause damage when finding food sometimes brings them into conflict with farmers, who can find grain fields damaged, or turf that has been grown for lawns dug up in the search for grubs.
Female badgers start to give birth to cubs from January, and by the end of March most births have taken place. Being born early in the year is important for the badger as the young animals need plenty of time to eat, grow and put on fat, before the rigours of their first winter. In Britain the majority of cubs are born in mid February, earlier in the south and later in the north.
Mid February is also a peak mating time, as females come into oestrus soon after the birth of their cubs. Badgers can, however, mate at any time of the year and still bear their cubs in the early spring.
The story of reproduction is intriguing and complex, it begins with the dominant male (boar) and female (sow) of a clan of badgers that may number between 5 & 12 animals. As in many species, the dominant animals instinctively need to ensure that their genes are passed on to the next generation. The dominant male's strategy is quite straightforward and is based on intimidation and superior strength. He uses these tactics at peak breeding times to brow-beat the other males into submission so that he has the best chance of mating. It is a common sight when watching badgers early in the year to see bite marks and wounds above the tail where young badgers have been attacked and injured by older, more experienced ones. This can sometimes lead to a number of subordinate males occupying outlying setts while waiting for their chance to breed. From these setts they can also make forays into adjoining territories with the chance of an opportunistic mating.
In Badger, pairing occurs from the second half of July to about the end of August, but the litter of cubs will be born during the early spring. This is achieved by delayed implantation; the fertilised eggs do not implant in the uterine wall but remain in suspension, barely developing all through the spring, summer and autumn. By mid December the time for these clusters of cells (blastocysts) to implant in the uterine wall draws near; and by the end of the month gestation will have begun.
Six or seven weeks after implantation the cubs are born. A litter can number as many as five cubs, but two or three is more usual. The cubs are about 4.7 in (120mm) long at birth, with a sparse covering of hair which often shows the characteristic eye stripe, or will do so within a few days of birth. The cubs do not open their eyes until they are around five weeks old and will not emerge from the sett until April or May.
FEMALE and CUB
Spring is spent with females rearing the young and feeding the cubs. When the cubs are underground the female is especially vigilant and she often uses a specially prepared chamber; separate from the rest of the sett, with its own entrance. Male badgers are not welcome and are driven away, but there is growing evidence that subordinate females may take an active role in helping the mother by baby sitting when the mother is out foraging. It is at this time that badgers are most vulnerable, so any potential threats, such as a passing fox are soon driven away.
Around eight weeks old, during late April and early May, badger cubs emerge from the sett for the first time and start playing games of all kinds. As the weeks pass they become more boisterous, soon the cubs accompany their mother on foraging trips into the surrounding fields, and at this time the cubs never take their noses from under their mother's as they learn how to find food.
As summer approaches food becomes more abundant and the badgers have less trouble finding it, the animals put on weight. At summer's end and through the autumn putting on pat is a priority and the badgers are busy eating as much as they can in readiness for the long lean months ahead. As November moves into December badgers are at their most inactive and stay underground for extended periods of time. Whilst they do not hibernate they can go into a deep sleep called a torpor which can last for days at a time. In January badgers begin to get more active as the breeding season approaches and the female in particular begins to prepare the sett for the birth of cubs.
A males territory can vary in size from as small as 37 acres (15 ha) in the high density areas of the south, to upwards to 250 acres (10ha) or more where both badgers and food are harder to come by, in more mountainous regions for example. He marks the area using dung pits, secretions from his subcaudal gland (located under the base of the tail) and more so in summer and autumn, his urine. The reasons for this vigilance are thought to be firstly to protect the food supply, and secondly, to keep females from mating with marauding male intruders.
BADGER From the French word 'becheur' meaning digger.
SETT From the ancient word 'cete' meaning a group of badgers
Other Brock, pate, grey, badget (Old English)
brocklach (Scottish Gaelic)
Broc (Irish Gaelic)
Mochyn Daear (Wales Gaelic) meaning earth pig
Males 22lb (10kg)
Females 20lb (9kg)
Vocalisation Wickering, yelps and low growls
Breeding Peak time January to March
Gestation After delayed implantation, 6 or 7 weeks
Litter size 1-5
Cubs emerge Late April/May
Imporant Badger Information...
- Legislation The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 gives legal protection to badgers and their setts.
It is an offence to cruelly ill-treat a badger or disturb one in its sett.
- If you do have problems with Badgers in your garden and would like some advice on what to do, please contact us:
Tel: (01278) 783250