Thinking about the badger sett has got me thinking about badger paths.
Badger paths are an absolutely classic sign of an active sett. Badgers are well-known to be creatures of habit, and will follow the same route night after night and even generation after generation until the vegetation is worn away and quite deep paths are formed. The urge to follow paths is obviously very strong. There are many examples of fences being erected across badger paths and the badgers simply barging through.
But why is this so? Why do badgers follow such regular paths?
To understand why, you have to stop thinking like a human and think like a badger for a while.
I’ve already mentioned the senses of the badger (see About Badgers). Badgers have poor eyesight, but a very good sense of smell. Unlike humans, who rely on visual information to navigate, the badger ‘sees’ the world as a landscape of scents and smells. This makes perfect sense for an animal that is active in the hours of darkness.
Badger paths then, are not visual paths, but scent paths. Each path carries the scent of the badgers that have used it. When a badger is following a path, it is literally following the badgers that have gone before. As a system it is simple and effective – the badger can find its way around a completely dark wood by using these trails, and in times of danger it can always follow them back to the sett. It is difficult for humans to understand a landscape of smells, but to the badger, these paths must stand out like a bright shining road would to us.
But nothing with badgers is ever simple. Many mammals have interdigital glands. These are glands between the toes that leave scent when the animal walks. Cats have them, for instance. When a cat scratches a tree it is not sharpening its claws. It is leaving scent from its interdigital glands to mark its territory.
It seems likely that badgers also have interdigital glands. This means that every time a badger uses a path it is not only leaving a signpost for itself and for other badgers, it is using the path to mark out the territory of the clan. Badgers use scent to identify members of their own clan, so a badger can easily tell which paths belong to them, and which belong to the neighboring clans.
So badger paths are not just the result of ingrained habits or an easy way for the badgers to get from one place to another. Seen in conjuction with other territorial markers such as the latrine sites and scratching trees, paths are a sophisticated part of the social behaviour of badgers.