Meles meles

Order: Carnivora

Badger – photo: Tris Pearce

Description: Our badger has a white head, dark stripes on either side spreading from just behind its ears, through each eye, stopping about 1cm before reaching its black nose. Badgers often appear grey from a distance – aids camouflage when active (dawn, dusk, night). Hair on legs and underside are dark. The badger’s eyes are small (eyesight poor), ears are short and edged with white, while its snout is short. Its body is stocky, short leg, short tail and powerful feet – large non-retractable claws  on its front feet for digging. In summer moult badgers can look shaggy. Colour variations – pale and gingery (erythristic); very occasionally all white (albino).

Size: In daylight, people are often surprised at how small badgers are – they look deceptively large in the dark. Body size varies with males (on average) being just a little larger – but sexing based on size is difficult  although boars do have broader heads and thinner longer tails. Length of males: 64cm to 88cm; mean 75.3cm. Female range 45cm to 88cm; mean of 72cm (Neal, 1975 ).

Weight: Again, there are slight differences between the sexes, but the differences are not uniform. Males: 8.4kg (Kruuk & Parish 1983) to 16.7kg; mean 10.4kg (10kg or less is the norm for both sexes, Roper 2010). Females are slightly smaller, ranging from 6.5kgto 13.9kg (Neal & Cheeseman 1996). Body weight varies according to habitat and food availability, with these differences being noticeable region to region. Weight also varies with season.

Lifespan:   Mortality among wild cubs is high, fewer than 35% reach three. Cubs will be predated by adult foxes and occasionally other species. Badgers in captivity live longer – 15 years is not unknown. In the wild, life-span averages out at 4 years, with mortality rates increasing thereafter (Rogers et al 1997). Mortality in adulthood often due to vehicle collisions, human interference  and persecution, though fights account for a proportion, as do starvation and drought.

Breeding: Males become sexually mature after 2 years. Females after 12-15 months – depending on food availability (dictates breeding condition). Mating can happen any month with the main period between February and May when most fertilisation occurs. Blastocyst only implants 3-9 months later – this delayed pregnancy enables the females to breed or not according to her condition, regulating population numbers in line with available food (sometimes sows breed only every other year). There is one litter pa, born below ground, usually 1-4 cubs between mid-January and mid -March, they stay in the sett for around 8 weeks, and wean at around 12 weeks. Cubs usually stay with mum until the autumn and often over the first winter.

Habitat:  Badgers can live in a wide variety of habitats – rural or urban. There is a marked preference for deciduous woodland and copses, with only 9% living in open fields (Mammal Society, 1972).They need cover, little disturbance, well drained rich soils to forage in for worms, and like pasture and gardens where the ground is soft and worms and insects easier to find year round. They need well-structured soils in which to dig setts which are a complex of underground tunnels and chambers; some have been in existence for hundreds of years.

Diet: True omnivores, the majority of the diet is made up of earthworms (200 worms a day is the calorie requirement), then slugs, insects, cereals, fruits, small mammals including rabbits, rats , voles and mice; roots, carrion, and in very small quantities eggs and birds. In drought, when worms are buried deep in baked soils, cereals  and insect larvae replace worms in the diet.

General Ecology: Unlike other mustelids, badgers are highly sociable, living in families or ‘clans’. Territory size is determined by how available food is – so in areas where food is easily available, territories are smaller. Smallest surveyed territories are 40 ha (100 acres), largest (in Scotland) 309 ha, a territory may contain 2-15 badgers. Territory is scent marked, using latrines in which the animals regularly defecate, and by scent deposited from the sub-caudal gland near the anus.

Badger 2km2 at 2018

Distribution and main sites: Widely distributed species, particularly in and near to deciduous woodland and copses where food availability is typically higher. Badgers are recorded all over the county in significant numbers but there are fewer records for the more upland and less populated southern parts.

Local Survey history: Shropshire Mammal Group, county recorder, Shropshire Badger Group. In cull areas, APHA.

Conservation Status: In western areas of England, including Shropshire, badgers are relatively common. Nationally it is not a species of conservation concern at present. However, after several years of repeated culling nationally, numbers are thought to have been reduced and there have been concerns expressed about the risk of local extinction in cull zones.

Threats: Where badgers coexist with apex predators such as wolf , lynx or bear, there is little evidence of predation on adult badgers. The main threats are from people and traffic. Despite being illegal since the 1835 Protection of Animals Act , badger baiting continues, as do other forms of illegal persecution including badger-digging which was outlawed in 1973 Badgers Act  – setts are blocked, filled in, dug out or destroyed by other means. Badgers are shot, poisoned, and snared – all illegally. Illegal fox hunts are known to block setts and to dig out setts, and there are regular cases of landowners or developers interfering with setts. These crimes are driven by ignorance and mythology, made worse it appears since licensed culling started in England in 2012 which appears to have emboldened some landowners. Dead badgers should always be reported to the Badger Trust and Shropshire Badger Group, and if there are suspicions of criminal activity, the police should be involved too.

Action: The badger has full legal protection  under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 also Schedule 6, WAC Act 1981. Despite this, they are relentlessly persecuted in many parts of Shropshire. The Shropshire Badger Group and the Shropshire Wildlife Trust regularly issue information about their ecology which ought to be a corrective, and Their protection depends on challenging misinformation and members of the public being able to safeguard local setts. Licences are available via Natural England for humanely dealing with damage caused by badger setts, also for development purposes.

Main recording methods: Like all nocturnal animals, badgers can be hard to accurately survey. Camera trap footage is invaluable. Paw prints, hair etc at sett entrances can indicate if a sett is active. Hair traps, from which DNA can be extracted, are a standard survey method to record numbers and individuals.

Did you know? Badgers scent-mark one another to reinforce clan relationships!Shropshire Lore: References to badgers occur in several Shropshire place names: Lee Brockhurst and Preston Brockhurst being examples. However, the village of Badger was once known as Bagsore.

Text: Rosie Wood with additions from Tris Pearce