Badgers (Meles meles) have lived in Britain for at least 250,000 years. The latest surveys show that there are a quarter of a million badgers in the UK, unevenly distributed across the country. The effects of persecution and changing land use mean that they have almost disappeared from some areas.
How badgers live
Badgers live in groups of up to 14 adults. The badgers dig out and live in a maze of underground tunnels and chambers called a sett. The main sett is occupied all year round and is a permanent home in fact some are thought to be around 100 years old. Around each main sett, there are others that are used sporadically throughout the year, often between January and March when the cubs are born. Badgers like to build their setts into sloping ground in woodlands, especially where the drainage is good and the soil is not too heavy to dig.
Badgers are rarely seen during the day, but forage for food at night. Their favourite foods are earthworms, insects, roots, fruits and berries. They may on occasion catch a young rabbit or even a frog. They are powerful animals about the size of a spaniel, and the male (boar), weighing up to 11 kilos, is slightly larger than the female (sow).
Threats to badgers
Badgers can live for up to 14 years, but are likely to die or be killed before they reach this age. Road traffic kills around 50,000 each year, and although this is a terrible toll, populations in many areas remain high. Intensive agriculture and urbanisation have more serious effects. Badgers are creatures of habit and cannot easily adapt to change. Where they are disturbed by development or people interfering with their setts, they may have problems in adapting, and may be forced to move on.
Persecution by badger baiters who kill badgers for 'fun', and by gamekeepers who sometimes kill badgers in the belief that they damage livestock, has decimated the badger populations in some areas, particularly South Yorkshire. In Essex, badger populations have declined as a result of agricultural intensification .
Some people believe that badgers pass on bovine tuberculosis to cattle. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food tries to protect farmers' cattle by killing badgers. It is not clear whether this helps to stop the spread of the disease.
Legislation to protect badgers
The Protection of Badgers Act (1992) consolidated and improved previous legislation. It is an offence to kill, injure or take a badger, or to damage or interfere with a sett unless a licence is obtained from a statutory authority. In spite of this, it can be very hard to enforce the law, so badger baiting continues. If you see someone you think may be digging for badgers, do not approach them but write down their car registration number(s) and immediately call the police or the RSPCA.
You may find a badger caught in a snare, hit by a car, or injured. Injured or snared badgers will be frightened and can be very dangerous. They are strong animals and are not used to being handled, so if you try to touch an injured badger, you are likely to be bitten. The best action is to cover the animal with a dustbin or a box with a heavy weight on it, then call the RSPCA or police. They will tell the local badger group who may run a 24 hour rescue service. Remember to record exactly where you saw the animal, so that clear directions can be given.
The best way to see badgers is to join your local badger group. Your local wildlife trust or the National Federation of Badger Groups can put you in touch. The local group will know the best time and place to watch badgers around the sett - these lively animals are very rewarding to watch.
If you find a hole that you think may be part of a badger's home, look around for badger's footprints and in the piles of spoil for badger hairs. Check the shape of the hole; badger holes tend to be the shape of a capital 'D', with the flat side downwards, and are at least 20cms wide.
RSPCA Problems with Badgers, 3rd Edition.
The Mammal Society Projects on Badgers, London.
The Mammal Society The Badger Book.
The National Federation of Badger Groups can be contacted at 15 Cloisters Business Centre, 8 Battersea Park Road, London SW8 4BG