Badgers, designated in Latin as Meles meles, belong to the mustelid genetic family, which includes weasels, stoats, otters, polecats, martens, pine martens and skunks.
Badgers have lived in Britain for thousands of years – since well before these islands were populated by humans – but few of us ever see them. They are nocturnal and shy, and in normal circumstances keep themselves to themselves, in tight family groups. They live underground in large systems of tunnels and chambers, known as setts, that they have dug themselves. They have strong family ties, and some setts have been inhabited for more than 300 years. One family can comprise up to 13 individuals.
To those of us lucky enough to have observed them, badgers are awesome creatures. They resemble little bears, full of character and fun, and badger watching has become a lifetime fascination for many people. They are very striking visually, with their unmistakable black and white facial markings. Like many other creatures, they all look the same to humans at first sight, but anyone who is around them for any length of time will soon realise that their faces – and personalities – are very individual.
Badgers are very territorial, and creatures of habit. They are clean animals, clearing out their homes daily, and even setting up toilet areas at a distance from their living quarters. They sometimes have separate winter and summer quarters; during the winter they often spend days at a time underground, sleeping. They are rarely seen during the day.
The occupants of a badger sett are a tight community, and protect each other well; a group of badgers is known as a clan. Young badgers, known as cubs, will play with each other, tumbling and nipping, and this helps strengthen their family ties – as well as preparing them for the task of defending themselves and their families later on. Setts can be very large indeed – up to half a mile across, with multiple entrances and sophisticated ventilation systems. In disused setts that have been exposed, both food and toys have been found in the larger chambers. The badger is one of a very small group of creatures capable of delayed implantation, which means badgers can have their young when they choose (perhaps we could learn something from them!).
The dominant male of the clan, or boar, will fight to maintain his status, and if challenged by a lower ranking male will fight aggressively to hold his position. The loser of a fight, often identified by characteristic bites on the ear and bottom, will then leave to start his own clan elsewhere; he may take refuge in a hedge in the first instance, before digging a new sett (relatively easy work for badgers, given their powerful bodies and long claws). Badgers live in woodland areas, but sometimes appear in gardens looking for food (they were here first, after all!). They are creatures of habit, and will take the same route on their nightly outings. Their main diet is earthworms, and they often find these in pastures, where farm animals graze; that is how they came under suspicion of helping to spread diseases such as bovine TB among cattle. They scratch the grass for bugs, grubs and larvae that lie just below the surface, and have little respect for a well-manicured lawn; they have been known to remove fences in order to re-enter a garden, but only when seeking food. They are omnivores, and will eat cereal-based dog food, meat, peanuts and fruit. If food is regularly left out they will come to expect it, and will come pestering if you stop feeding them.
Like all our wildlife, badgers are naturally wary of humans, but can be observed from hides and houses close to where food is put out for them. In 1997, a survey estimated that there were about 50,000 social groups in the UK all using various removals companies, accounting for approximately 310,000 badgers. Sadly, in spite of the badger’s legally protected status, it’s estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 badgers die at the hands of diggers each year, and the barbaric activity of badger baiting (using dogs to fight a badger) still exists today in many areas. Some 30,000 to 40,000 are killed on the roads every year, but as they’ve long been blamed for spreading bovine TB, it’s well known that many vengeance killings take place under cover; farmers are alleged to have gassed, poisoned and shot badgers on their land, and thrown their bodies onto the road in order to give the impression that they’re road kill.
Badgers are protected by a number of laws. They may not be deliberately killed, persecuted or trapped, except under licence. Badger baiting has been illegal since 1835, and the Badgers Act 1973 made digging for them a crime. The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 consolidated past badger legislation and, in addition to protecting the badger itself, made it an offence to damage, destroy or obstruct badger setts. It’s a good idea to use a removals company when moving badgers.