There are nine species of badger throughout the world. Only one species, the European Badger (Meles meles), lives in Britain. All badgers belong to the weasel family. Their closest relatives are weasels, polecats, mink, pine martens, skunks and otters. All these animals have one thing in common, a scent gland beneath the tail which produces 'musk’, hence the name of the family - Mustelidae. Different types of badgers are found throughout the various continents of the world except for Antarctica and Australasia.
Badgers have been present in Britain for thousands of years. Scientists have found badger bones from animals that lived at the same time as the cave bear and the elk. Badgers have managed to survive whilst other animals such as wild boar, wolves and bears have become extinct in this country.
The highest populations of badgers tend to be in Wales and south-west England, as large areas of countryside in these regions provide very suitable habitats for the badger. Ideally, badgers like to dig their setts into a bank or slope, where the soil is well drained and where there is both good shelter in the form of woodland cover and also a plentiful supply of food. The mild, wet climate, together with the rolling hills in Wales and western England, where pasture and cereals are the predominant crops, suit the badgers’ needs very well and they seem to thrive in these areas.
Other places where you may find badger setts include hedgerows, open fields, river banks, disused quarries, under buildings and on coastal cliffs. Badgers living close to urban areas soon learn to exploit opportunities to find food by raiding dustbins and compost heaps, digging up garden plants and bulbs and sniffing out worms on well-tended lawns, sometimes causing conflict with people.
The badger is a very strong animal. Its skeleton has evolved to suit its way of life, with short tough legs and strong claws for digging, a low-slung body for negotiating tunnels easily and a sagittal crest (or ridge) on the skull for protection and also for the attachment of very powerful jaw muscles and neck ligaments. One thing you will notice about an adult badger’s skull is that the lower jaw always stays locked into the sockets on either side at the base of the cheek bones. Powerful muscles link the thick muscle tissue on either side of the sagittal crest along the top of the badger’s skull with the lower jaw above the hinge. This arrangement of bones means that the badger’s jaw cannot be dislocated and the badger can give an extremely strong bite. Male badgers have a larger crest than females, although you can only see the crest on the skull itself, it is not visible on a live badger. This crest and its muscles must have saved many badgers from receiving a fractured skull especially when in collision with vehicles.
Animals have teeth to suit the types of food they eat. Herbivores (plant-eating animals) have teeth for cutting and chewing. The front teeth (incisors) are sharp to cut vegetation and grass and the back teeth (molars) are large and flat for chewing or grinding the vegetation into small digestible amounts. Carnivores (meat-eating animals) have teeth for tearing flesh and chewing. The front teeth include canines which are long and pointed and the back teeth are smaller but also pointed, for chewing raw meat. Omnivores eat both meat and plant material. They need the incisors, canines and molars to cope with all their different foods. Badgers are omnivorous. Teeth are not made of bone, but a softer material called dentine, which is covered with a very hard outer coating called enamel. The first teeth in a badger appear at one month of age. By four months the badger cub has a full set of adult teeth replacing its milk teeth. It is possible to estimate the age of a badger by the wear on the bumps of the molars (the flatter they are, the older the badger).
Badgers are very social creatures. They live in groups and there are approximately 43,000 social groups in Britain (English Nature and Mammal Society 1990 figures).
Each group has its own territory, the size of which depends on the suitability of their habitat. If the habitat provides a plentiful supply of food, e.g. broadleaved woodland bordering pasture and arable land, the badgers will not need to travel very far to find sufficient food. If the habitat is poor, e.g. upland coniferous forest and moorland, then the badgers will have to travel much further each night to find enough food. The smallest recorded territory is in Gloucestershire and is 15ha or 37.5 acres (equivalent to 30 football pitches). The largest is in Scotland and covers 309ha or 772.5 acres (616 football pitches). Badgers mark the edges of their territory with their dung pits (latrines) and by scent marking at certain points; this warns the neighbouring badgers that this is the boundary line of their territory. Badgers are very territorial, they will fight off 'outsiders', but only small skirmishes occur within each group, in particular when sows are in oestrus. Each badger knows his/her place within the hierarchy of the group. None of the badgers challenges the dominant boar or sow. Members of the same social group will scent each other using their musk glands so that the whole group carries the same smell, with the dominant boar scenting the others most frequently.
Badgers have a very unusual method of reproduction. Along with other members of the weasel family they possess the amazing ability to delay the implantation of eggs into the uterine wall (wall of the womb). A sow (female) can mate at any time of the year but still keep the birth of her cubs until the spring by holding the fertilised eggs in a suspended state within her uterus. The eggs will Implant into the uterlne wall and begin to develop as foetuses around the end of December. The cubs will be born two months later towards the end of February. A sow will produce between two and five cubs, which are born blind and helpless, with silver hair and faint black stripes on their faces. The sow will suckle the cubs until they are approximately three to four months old when she will wean them onto regurgitated solid food. By five months (July) they are feeding themselves. Hot dry summers cause the death of many young cubs through starvation. It is estimated that approximately 60% of the cubs born die in their first year, which could amount to 105,000 cubs a year. (English Nature and Mammal Society 1990 figures)
Badgers are omnivores, enjoying a varied diet of both meat and plant material. Since they are not built for speed, they do not chase their prey, but eat whatever they can find. This infers that badgers do not need to be skillful in catching their prey. This is not true. Earthworms form the bulk of their diet.
In good weather conditions, (still, wet summer nights), badgers may consume about 200 earthworms a night. In these circumstances, a badger will probably not need to drink as the worms are full of water. In adverse weather conditions though, (wind, cold, frost, snow, drought) badgers will not find enough worms and will need to find alternative sources of food. The range of alternatives varies according to the season. In the autumn, badgers will supplement their diet by eating fruit and fungi. In the winter they may feed on plant roots, beech mast, acorns and carrion. In the spring they may find birds’ eggs, injured or baby birds, bulbs and larvae. In the summer they will dig out wasps’ nests, rabbit and rat nests and also feed on cereals. The amount of corn eaten by badgers is minimal, but they do occasionally upset farmers by trampling through it.
It has been conservatively estimated that there is a 39% mortality rate each year of adult badgers. Around 19% (47,500) die on the roads, 17% (42,500) die from natural causes and 3% (7,500) die from direct persecution through badger digging and baiting. (English Nature and Mammal Society 1990 figures). Other than man, badgers do not have any natural predators.
Other causes of death, besides old age, are:
a) injuries - although the injury in itself may not be fatal, it may become infected, turn septic and result in death due to weakness or starvation caused by an inability to feed.
b) broken/bad teeth - causing starvation.
c) disease - TB, rnange, rabies (abroad,) lungworm infestation. All of these are relatively uncommon.
d) infanticide - sometimes female badgers kill another female's cubs.
e) climate influence - bad weather/drought causing food shortages and starvation.
Human influence is having a devastating effect on badger populations. For a long time, people “controlled” badgers by snaring, trapping, digging and baiting. Digging and baiting still occur extensively in certain parts of the country (see Persecution).
Road traffic accidents account for the death of a very large number of badgers, particularly on new main roads and motorway developments cutting through good badger habitat.
Badgers have, in many respects, adapted to urban development, but they suffer extremely high losses because of their inability to acknowledge the hazards of speeding traffic. They repeatedly follow ancestral pathways that have been used by successive generations and which now traverse busy main roads and hazardous ground-level electrified railway lines. Many probably die undetected a few metres from the road after they have been hit. Badger populations are also reduced by the loss of suitable habitat and sett destruction primarily as a result of either development (housing, industrial, surface mining) or changes in farming practice (hedgerow and copse removal, filling in holes in fields sometimes with slurry, drowning the occupants). Intensive farming may also destroy worm-rich pasture land. There are now laws to try to protect the badger from inadvertent destruction and persecution (see Badgers and the Law).
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