Ecology and behaviour
The badger Meles meles is a mammal of the mustelid family (along with stoats and weasels) and is native to the United Kingdom. A male badger is called a boar and a female is called a sow. There are an estimated 300,000 badgers in the UK.
Badgers are carnivores, their diet consisting mainly of earthworms and insect larvae. Badgers will however vary their diet according to the availability of food and may eat small mammals, fruit, nuts and even scraps left by humans.
A full-grown badger may reach approximately 1m in length. Badgers are sturdy animals, weighing approximately 10kg. Fur on the face of the badger is in the characteristic black and white stripe pattern, whilst the fur on the rest of the body appears grey. Badgers have strong limbs with sharp claws used for digging.
Badgers are nocturnal animals, which sleep during the day and are active at night. They spend the daytime in a sett, an underground den dug by badgers consisting of a network of tunnels and chambers. Badgers live together in family groups known as clans. A clan may use a number of different setts. Vegetation is brought into the sett to act as bedding. Badgers are clean animals and regularly remove bedding material from their setts. Badgers do not soil their setts and instead dig dung pits and latrines. Badgers use latrines to mark their territory – droppings are strongly-scented and mark the territory of the clan.
Young badgers are known as cubs, and are usually born in January of February. A sow may have a litter of 2 or 3 cubs. For the first two months of their lives cubs are completely dependent on their mother. After two months cubs are weaned off their mother’s milk and begin to leave the sett and forage for themselves, developing their skills by playing with other cubs.
Threats to badgers
In the UK the badger has no natural predators. However badgers are under constant threat from human activity. Thousands of badgers are killed every year on our roads as a result of collisions with vehicles.
Badgers have been the target of persecution for hundreds of years, which unfortunately continues to this day. Poachers using specially trained dogs to trap the badger in the sett before digging down into the sett to retrieve the badger. The badger is then either killed or used for badger baiting – a barbaric practice whereby badgers are forced to fights against dogs. Badgers are very resilient animals and will fight to protect themselves and their young. Badger baiters will sometimes injure or restrain the badger prior to the introduction of the dogs. Badger baiting always ends with the death of the badger from its injuries.
As well as the threats posed by poachers and badger baiters badgers have historically been subject to killing by poisoning, snaring, shooting and poisoning, blocking and destruction of inhabited setts.
A further human threat to badgers is development. Construction of roads, housing, and other developments, along with intensive agricultural practices, have impacted on badger habitat. Developments may have direct impact on a badger sett, by destruction or disturbance. Badgers require extensive areas for foraging, and the introduction of residential, commercial and industrial developments and associated roads can destroy badger foraging habitat or make such areas inaccessible.
A recent threat to badgers is bovine tuberculosis (bTB). The UK government introduced trial culls in 2013, whereby in designated areas badgers could be shot and killed under licence. The role of the badger in the bTB issue and associated propaganda have potentially made the badger subject to increased persecution.
Protection of badgers
Badgers are afforded legal protection under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. The act was introduced to protect badgers from persecution, and applies to badgers and their setts. Under the 1992 Act it is an offence to:
• wilfully kill, injure, take or attempt to kill, injure or take a badger;
• possess a dead badger or any part of a badger;
• cruelly ill-treat a badger;
• use badger tongs in the course of killing, taking or attempting to kill a badger;
• dig for a badger;
• sell or offer for sale or control any live badger;
• mark, tag or ring a badger; and
• interfere with a badger sett by:
• damaging a sett or any part thereof;
• destroying a sett;
• obstructing access to a sett;
• causing a dog to enter a sett; and
• disturbing a badger while occupying a sett.
The 1992 Act defines a badger sett as: “any structure or place which displays signs indicating current use by a badger”.
Badgers are listed on Schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, under which it is an offence to undertake certain methods of kill or capture.
In England licences to disturb or destroy badger setts may be issued by Natural England to facilitate development and the protection of property.