The Mole had long wanted to make the acquaintance of the Badger. He seemed, by all accounts, to be such an important personage and, though rarely visible, to make his unseen influence felt by everybody about the place.
Kenneth Grahame, in The Wind in the Willows
Although this blog is intended as a diary of my experiences, it is probably useful to write a few words about the real stars – the badgers.
The Eurasian Badger (Meles meles), as its name suggests, is found across Europe and Asia, although appearance and habits differ slightly from region to region. It belongs to the mustelid family, so it is related to stoats, weasels, martens and otters.
A male badger is called a boar, a female a sow, and young badgers are called cubs.
The appearance of the badger tells you a lot about the way it lives. An adult badger is about the same size as a labrador dog but with much shorter and more muscular legs. This ‘low slung’ physique is ideally suited to a life underground (so the tunnels don’t need to be so high) and for feeding off small food items on the ground.
The badger’s powerful legs and long claws make it a strong digger, indeed the word ‘badger’ possibly comes from an old French word becheur, meaning ‘digger’. One of the characteristics of a badger sett is a large mound of soil outside the entrance that the badgers have excavated when digging their tunnels.
Like all mustelids, badgers have five toes on each foot. Dogs, cats and foxes only have four, the fifth being a ‘dew claw’ on the back of the leg. This is one way to recognise badger tracks – if there are five toes, it could well be a badger (although confusingly the fifth toe is quite small and not always visible).
Visually, the badger is unmistakable, with its white face and broad black stripes running from the nose to the ears. Look closely at a picture of a badger’s face. You’ll see that the eyes are quite small and the nose is very large. This is reflected in their senses. Badgers do not see particularly well, but their sense of smell is very good – something like 800 times more effective than our own. Badgers get most of their information about the world around them through their nose.
Badgers live in social groups of five to ten related individuals. These groups are arranged in a hierarchy or pecking order, so that each badger knows its place. The group, or ‘clan’, communicates partly by scent, and dominant badgers will often mark the other badgers with their own scent. This scent is secreted from a gland under the tail, and it seems as if the dominant badger is briefly sitting on the other. This behaviour is known as ‘musking’, and can often be seen when watching badgers.
Badgers are territorial (see my posts for my ongoing efforts to map badger territories). The badgers that I watch control the area around 300m from the sett. This area is marked out by scent and by latrine pits or dung piles. These are small holes into which the badgers deposit their dung, and are one of the sure ways of indicating that there are badgers in the area.
Badgers are largely nocturnal, spending their days in a burrow called a sett. Badger setts can be very large, with hundreds of yards of tunnels and many entrances. They have separate areas for living and sleeping, and even latrine areas underground.
Badger setts can be distinguished from the holes of rabbits and foxes by their size, and also from the large spoil heaps outside the entrances. Another sign is piles of used bedding outside the hole. Badgers periodically drag fresh bedding into the sett, usually dry grass but also green plants, and remove the old bedding. This may be because the old bedding becomes infested with fleas – living underground in a group means that badgers are particularly prone to fleas. The first thing a badger usually does when it leaves the sett is to sit down and have a good scratch.
Here is a video of a badger shuffling backwards as it drags bedding back to the sett:
Being nocturnal, badgers stay underground during the day and emerge around the time of sunset. The precise time varies. In the winter, when the nights are long, they will usually come out well after it has got dark. In the summer they may come out an hour or two before dusk in undisturbed areas. The whole clan may sit around by the sett entrance for a while, scratching and playing – particularly if there are cubs – before moving away to feed.
Badgers tend to be creatures of habit, and will use the same routes night after night. This creates paths, which in some cases can be very wide if they have been used by the badgers for a long time. Again, these paths are a good indication that there are badgers around. If you find a path leading under a wire fence, have a look and see if there is any hair caught in the wire. You can often find grey badger hairs trapped in the fence.
Food and Feeding
Badgers prefer to live in woods, but they often live on the edge of the wood, not in the middle. This is because their food tends to live in open fields rather than woodlands.
The main food of the badger in Britain is the earthworm. This may not sound a very substantial diet for a large mammal like a badger, but earthworms are quite nutritious and they are also easy to catch. During the night, the worms emerge from the soil and lie on the grass. If you go into a field with a torch and tread softly, you can often see them lying in the open.
The badger, with its big, sensitive nose, snuffles through the grass, sniffing out the earthworms. When it catches one it often holds it in their mouth like a piece of spaghetti before swallowing it. Scientists have analysed the diet of a badger and estimated that each badger needs to eat about 160 worms a night to survive. This may sound a lot, but a badger can easily catch that many in a few hours.
Badgers also eat other things. In my area, where there are a lot of wheat fields, they will eat wheat and barley. You can tell that this is what they have been eating because it shows up clearly in their dung. I’ve also known badgers to eat fallen cherries from a cherry tree (stones and all!), as well as apples and all sorts of insects. Some people feed badgers, and they seem to be quite fond of peanuts (unsalted) as well as fruit and dog food.
This is only a short introduction to badgers. There is a lot more information about these fascinating creatures if you are interested.
To start with, there are lots of good websites about badgers. www.badgerland.co.uk is very good, as is Brock’s World, particularly for children. Both of these have a vast amount of information and some excellent pictures.
If you are interested in the welfare of badgers, the Badger Trust is well worth a look. It represents local badger groups, so you should be able to find one in your area. Many of these groups offer guided trips if you fancy going out and doing a spot of badger watching.
In terms of books, the ‘bible’ of badgers is Badgers, by Ernest Neal and Chris Cheeseman (click here for a link to amazon.co.uk). This book is quite academic yet still very readable, with lots of stories and anecdotes. It is difficult to get hold of, but if you want to know all there is to know about badgers, this is the one to get. Ernest Neal was a great authority on badgers, and all of his books are very good.
Another excellent but difficult to obtain book is The Social Badger, by Hans Kruuk (click here for a link to amazon.co.uk). If you want to get a deep understanding of badger behaviour, then this is full of information. Hans Kruuk pioneered many of the study techniques used today, and a great deal of our knowledge of badgers’ social behaviour comes from his work. It is also a great story of his fieldwork in Oxfordshire and Scotland, which at times reads more like an adventure story than an academic work.
Easier to get hold of is Badgers by Michael Clark (click here for a link to amazon.co.uk). This is an excellent book, very readable with funny illustrations, yet packed with facts and stories. It is highly recommended for children and adults alike.
All of these books have sections on badger watching, but if you want a more detailed guide, my favourite is Mammal Watching, also by Michael Clark (click here for a link to amazon.co.uk). It is quite an old book, but it is full of good information about watching badgers and other animals.
As a final word, I should of course mention Tales from the Wood, my own blog. Keep visiting for more personal experiences of a badger watcher!