The Eurasian Badger (Meles meles), known as the common badger, is a member of the family that includes weasels, stoats, and otters. A survey completed during 2007/2008 estimated that there were around 33,500 badgers within Northern Ireland, with the largest densities occurring in parts of Counties Down and Armagh.
The Eurasian badger is the commonest badger found throughout Europe. A male badger is called a boar and the female is called a sow. Young badgers are cubs.
Appearance and general Characteristics
One feature that immediately distinguishes the badger is its colouration, particularly on its face. The black and white striped head of the badger is well known, and may be a form of warning colouration. The fur in the badger’s upper parts appears grey, while the fur on the throat, legs and under parts is black. The forelegs are well developed and the forepaws bear long strong claws. These are adaptations for a digging way of life. Badgers have a well-developed sense of smell and sound, but have a limited sense of sight. Adult badgers are around 90cm long and can weigh anything between 6-17kg with an average of 10-11kg.
The badger often lives in a group called a cete or clan. Each clan shares a territory containing feeding grounds and one or more setts. The size of the clan and the size of the territory are both related to the availability of food supplies.
Badgers are largely nocturnal. In winter, badgers do not hibernate but reduce their activity during periods of cold weather. Badger activity increases at the start of the main mating season, resulting in increased road casualties in late winter/early spring. During the summer months, activity is mainly concentrated around the setts and the feeding areas and travelling between locations. During the autumn, badger feeding activity increases to accumulate body fat reserves for the winter. A secondary peak in the number of road casualties occurs at this time.
Badgers live in a system of interconnected tunnels and chambers called a sett. Every badger clan has one main sett, which is used for breeding and is usually relatively large. Well-established setts have been excavated by several generations of badgers, with some setts known to be occupied for centuries. The size of the sett is influenced more by the soil type than by the number of animals living within it.
In addition to the main sett, most clans have one or more secondary setts. Secondary setts are less important to the badgers than main setts, but they are useful nonetheless especially if the main sett is disturbed or there is a breakdown in the social structure within the clan. Disused setts may be taken over by rabbits or by foxes, and both these species have been known to co-habit with badgers in occupied setts.
In the chambers inside the sett, the badgers make nests in which they sleep. Periodically, fresh bedding material (typically dry grass, straw, bracken or dead leaves) is collected and dragged into the sett. Setts can be located in wooded areas or scrub, although more recently there is a tendency for setts being excavated in hedgerows in areas of improved pasture.
Food & feeding behaviour
The badger is an omnivore, primarily a forager, eating an extremely wide range of animal and plant foods. They are opportunistic. Badgers have been known to regularly visit farm buildings and gardens if there is a readily available food source.
The principal food of the badger in most of Western Europe is the earthworm.
Other food sources include:
- other invertebrates – especially beetles and ground living insect larvae
- carrion - dead animals and birds
- small mammals – usually young rabbits or mice
- fruits and nuts – such as blackberries, cherries, elderberries and acorns
- cereals – typically wheat, oats or barley
- roots, bulbs and tubers
February is the peak month of the badger main mating season, but they can mate at any time of the year. Delayed implantation is a feature of the badgers’ reproductive cycle. Eggs fertilized after mating develop into tiny balls of cells called blastocysts. These remain in the uterus until a trigger factor causes implantation allowing development to resume. Regardless of fertilisation date, implantation nearly always occurs in late December or early January. Following 6-7 weeks of normal gestation, birth occurs from late January to early March, with the majority taking place in the first half of February. Litter size can vary between 1 and 5 (normally 2 or 3). Cubs spend approximately the first eight weeks of life underground, emerging in late April or early May.
Although badger cubs are born at a time of year which maximises their chances of survival, on average only one out of every three cubs survives to be one year old. Male and female cubs become sexually mature at around 11-15 months of age and may mate before the end of their first year, in areas where food supplies are plentiful.
Badgers in the wild can live for as long as 15 years. However, most badgers die young and the average life span is just three years.
In the UK and ROI, adult badgers have no natural enemies but young cubs may be taken by foxes.
Badgers are usually wary of humans. In most cases, a badgers’ first reaction to danger is to escape into the nearest sett .If cornered, individual animals may be more aggressive.
How to recognise a badger sett and badger activity
There are features common to nearly all badger setts which help to distinguish them from the burrows dug by foxes and rabbits.
Tunnel or shape of entrance
Most badger tunnels have a distinctive shape, being wider than they are tall, with a flattened base. Tunnels excavated by foxes and rabbits tend to be rounder or oval in shape, and taller than they are broad. The tunnels excavated by badgers are around 30cm in diameter, certainly no smaller than 25cm in diameter. Tunnels excavated by rabbits may be quite large at their entrance, but soon narrow down to a diameter of about 15cm.
This refers to the excavated material found at the sett entrance. In general, this is usually much larger than those created by either foxes or rabbits and is often coarser material containing rocks and stones. Rocks may bear badger claw marks. Badgers drag earth out backwards, pulling it out and away from the entrance hole with their forepaws before kicking it away with their back feet. In the process, they sometimes form a well-defined furrow or groove from the sett entrance into the spoil heap. Clay balls, formed as the badgers try to remove clay with their paw, may also be found. These often incorporate badger hairs. Freshly excavated earth outside a sett entrance is an obvious sign that the sett is in use.
An examination of the spoil heaps will nearly always reveal bits of old bedding material. This is evidence that the holes belong to a badger sett, but it is not evidence of current use of the sett by badgers. The sight of bundles of fresh bedding material outside the sett entrance is one of the clearest signs of current badger activity. When badgers collect bedding, they often bring back several bundles and regularly leave one or more of these bundles outside. The freshness of such vegetation gives some indication to when the material had been collected. This is possibly left to dry and does not usually remain above ground for very long.
the hairs from a badgers back and flanks are very distinctive and cannot be confused with those from any other European mammal. They are basically white (or brown if the sett is in sandy soil and the hairs have become stained) with a black band towards the tip. They are about 7-10cm long; the black band measuring 1-2cm and the white tip also about 1cm or so in length. Badger hairs are quite coarse, and not fine like fox or rabbit hairs. They are also oval in cross section, not round. This means if you take a badger hair and roll it between your thumb and finger it does not roll smoothly. Badger hairs are often found in the barbs of barbed wire fences, close to the sett or anywhere the badger has passed through. Hairs may also be found caught in the brambles, or in the soil in the spoil heap. Loose hairs on the surface of the spoil heap can be an indicator of recent badger activity.
Badger pads and footprints
A worn path used regularly by the badger is referred to as a pad. Badgers are creatures of habit and tend to follow regular pathways between their setts and foraging grounds. Well used pathways are very conspicuous, the constant passage of badger feet having flattened or worn away the vegetation. Such paths are a good indication of badger activity but it may be difficult in assessing how recent that activity may have been.
A badgers footprint is very distinctive it consists of a broad kidney shaped pad, with 5 toes lined up in front, the front feet are larger and the claws longer. Often the fifth toe (the inner toe), which is slightly smaller and set further back, does not show up, and the print may have only four toe marks. The fact that toes are arranged in a line clearly identifies the print as badger: dogs, foxes and cats have four-toed prints, but their toes are arranged in an arc around an oval or three lobed pads. The width of an adult badgers print may range from 4.5-6.5cm. Sometimes badgers leave print with 8-10 toes. This happens when a badger walks it places its hind feet almost exactly on top of where it placed its front feet.
If the ground around the sett entrance is soft, you will almost certainly find fresh badger footprints if the sett is in use. The same being the case along pathways. Of course, the best time to look for badger tracks is when there is snow on the ground when their trail can be followed.
Evidence includes snuffle holes, which are small pits (10-15cm across) in the ground made by the badger’s snout as it searches for worms and beetles. These pits tend to be conical in shape with the material dug out on more than one side. Rabbits will also make such scrapes in search of roots, but these tend to be smaller with material scratched out on one side only. Badgers will also dig up wasp or bees nests, as well as rabbit nursery chambers in order to obtain a source of food.
Latrines and dung
Badger latrines are usually easy to identify. Cats dig pits for their droppings but they cover them up afterwards, while badgers leave their droppings exposed. Foxes in complete contrast to the badger leave their droppings not in pits but on tussocks of grass or other raised or prominent places. Badger droppings tend to look like those of a dog in size and shape but will vary in appearance depending on what the badger has eaten.
Latrines can be found close to a sett or on the outer edges of a territory, where they act as boundary posts. Some latrines consist of just a few dung pits, while others are larger with a dozen or more.
Other signs of badger activity
In summer months, flies buzzing in and out of sett entrances are evidence that the sett is in use. However, this does not mean that the sett is being used by badgers and other evidence is needed for confirmation. On cold winter mornings, steam may be seen rising from sett entrances. This is caused by the condensation of warm air generated by the badgers exhalations and body heat. Setts may have one or more scratching posts near the entrance.
As well as tree trunks, badgers may scratch fence posts or other suitable objects. When scratching, the badger gets up on is hind legs and reaches as high as it can with its front paws and then brings them down scraping against the wood as it does so. Suggested reasons for this behaviour include cleaning mud from claws, muscle toning or as a territorial marker.