Badgers

Meles MelesMeles Meles - the European badger.

The European Badger (Meles Meles) has a grey appearance (although the hairs are actually black and white) with black and white stripes and is more slender than the North American Badger (Taxidea Taxus)

Adult males measure around 90cm in length (including a tail of around 15cm), and weigh anything from 9kg to 17kg. Females are usually slightly shorter, and lighter - from 6.5kg to 14kg. The weights of both sexes vary over the year, being at their greatest at the beginning of winter, and at their lowest at the end of that season. They are particularly numerous in much of the south-west of England, and also in parts of the south-east and Wales. They are however much thinner on the ground in most of East Anglia and in the mountainous areas of Wales and Scotland. The national population is estimated to be around 250,000 animals. Meles occupies a wide range of habitats. In Britain, numbers are highest in areas where there is a lot of old, well-grazed cattle pasture, but they also occupy mixed and arable farmland, forests, moorlands and coastal habitats such as sand dunes and cliffs. In addition, they also live in urban areas.

Most badgers in Britain live socially in groups or clans consisting of several adult badgers and their young. Each clan occupies a home range within which there will be one or more badger setts and various feeding grounds, linked by badger pathways.

A clan's range may be defended as a territory. Typically, each clan is headed by a dominant male (boar) and female (sow). These animals command the use of the best sleeping chambers in the sett, and the best foraging areas in the clan's range. They may also ward off intruders of their own sex from other clans. In particular, dominant boars have been known to patrol their clans' territories regularly during the main breeding season (around February - March time), and mark the borders with dung deposited in boundary dung pits. If a boar from another clan is encountered, the ensuing fight can be quite fierce, and severe bite wounds to the rump often result from such battles.

The European badger is mainly nocturnal. The actual time in the evening when the badger emerges from its sett varies considerably from place to place and from badger to badger. The timing also varies over the course of the year. In Britain, Meles usually comes above ground around dusk, and so emerges later in the summer months and earlier during the winter. Emergencies in the winter months usually take place after darkness has fallen, but in the summer months the badger often leaves the sett while it is still light.

The European badger digs extensive underground homes known as setts, consisting of a network of interconnected tunnels and chambers. They are typically excavated in soil that is well drained and easy to dig, such as sand, and situated on sloping ground where there is some cover, for example in a wood, copse or hedgerow. Every badger clan has one main sett. These are occupied continuously and are used for breeding; they are usually large, well-established setts which have been excavated by several generations of badgers and are vital for the badgers' survival. These setts can become quite large over time: setts with a dozen to 20 or more entrances are common, and quite a number of setts with 50 - 100 entrance holes are known. Below ground, there are hundreds of metres of tunnel, created by the excavation of many tonnes of earth.

In addition to the main sett, most clans also have one or more secondary setts within their territories. These secondary setts fall into three categories - annexe setts, subsidiary setts, and outlier setts.

Secondary setts are less important to the badgers than main setts, but they are useful nonetheless, especially if the main sett is disturbed. Disused setts may be taken over by rabbits or used by foxes; both of these species will also co-habit with badgers in occupied setts. In the chambers inside the sett, the badgers make nests to sleep in. Periodically, fresh bedding material - typically dry grass, straw, bracken or dead leaves - is collected and dragged into the sett. Old bedding material is also removed from the sett from time to time.

In most of Britain and western Europe, earthworms form the largest part of the badger's diet, and whenever weather conditions are right (mild and damp), badgers will head for those areas where they know they are likely to find worms on the surface. Foraging for worms is most effective in areas of short grass, so well-grazed pastures are preferred, and well-maintained amenity grasslands (playing fields, golf courses and garden lawns) may also be used if they fall within the badger's territory. Worms can also be found in good numbers in deciduous woodlands, but are less common in arable fields, and scarce in the acid soils of coniferous forests and moorlands.

When earthworms are not readily available, for example during dry weather, badgers switch to other food sources. Their favourite alternatives are other invertebrates, especially beetles and ground-living insect larvae; wasp nests are frequently dug up and the grubs eaten. Carrion (dead animals and birds), Small mammals, usually young rabbits, mice or voles dug from their nests. Some badgers learn how to deal with hedgehogs too. Fruits and nuts, such as blackberries, cherries, and acorns, Cereals, typically wheat or oats which are gleaned from fields. Roots, bulbs and tubers - pignuts and wild arum roots are favourites. In short, badgers are very much opportunists, and will take whatever is available, but earthworms are the preferred food item.

February is the peak month of the badger's main mating season, but badgers may in fact mate at almost any time of the year. Badger cubs however are nearly always born in or around February. This is made possible by an unusual feature of the badger's reproductive system called delayed implantation. Once the badger's eggs are fertilized they develop into tiny balls of cells called a blastocysts. These remain suspended in the womb or uterus until something causes them to implant onto the wall of the uterus, when they continue their development normally. No matter when the eggs were fertilized, implantation nearly always occurs in late December or early January. After a further 6 - 7 weeks of 'normal' gestation, most births then occur from late January to early March, with the majority in the first half of February.

Litter sizes range from 1 to 5, with litters of 2 or 3 being most frequent. The system of delayed implantation maximises the badger's chances of being successfully mated, and ensures that the cubs are born at the best time of year: after being suckled below ground for eight weeks, they start emerging from the sett in April or early May, which gives them all of spring, summer and autumn to feed, grow, and put on sufficient fat reserves to see them through their first winter.

Males and females generally become sexually mature during their second year of life, although females may mature earlier, mating before the end of their first year, in areas where food supplies are good. 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. Many die while still very young. About a third of all adult badgers also die each year, and the average lifespan is just 3 years. Those that survive beyond this age typically live for up to 5 to 8 years, and a small number live even longer, occasionally for as long as 15 years. The oldest European badger on record was one held in captivity, this lived to be 19 years and 6 months old.

For further information along with many pictures and numerous links to other Badger related sites - go to www.badgers.org.uk