The badger is one of the most widespread and most popular animals in Britain. Most people recognise the badger, but because they are nocturnal mammals - they stay below ground during the day and look for food at night - they are rarely seen. The distinctive signs of badger activity are also often overlooked.
Badger (Meles meles)
Badgers are found across Britain, usually in woods below 100 metres wherever ground conditions, such as drainage, and land use permits. They live in underground burrows, called setts, in social groups usually of between 4 and 12 badgers. Each group has a 'territory', varying in size from around 30 hectares where there is plenty of food and 150 hectares in marginal habitat.
Male and female badgers, called 'boars' and 'sows', both reach maturity when they are just over 1 year old. They usually mate in the spring, with most births in the following February. This seems a long 'pregnancy', but it takes up to 9 months for the embryo to implant in the womb. Development in the womb (the 'gestation' period) is only 7 weeks. Usually, there are 2 or 3 cubs born in each litter, but single cubs and quadruplets (4 cubs) are not uncommon. Less than 50% of cubs survive to adulthood.
Cubs open their eyes and gain their milk teeth after about 6 weeks. They leave the sett for the first time when they are about 8 weeks old. By 4 months, badgers have a full set of permanent teeth. They can hunt for food and no longer rely on the sow's milk for nourishment.
Badgers are omnivorous - they eat both animals and plants - and they are able to choose from a wide range of food, depending on the time of year, weather conditions and local land use. By far the most important item in their diet is earthworms, but other favoured foods include beetles, birds, young rabbits, rodents like squirrels and rats, reptiles and amphibians. Badgers also feed on bee and wasp larvae, fruits, fungi, cereals, nuts, seeds and berries.
Adult badgers have no natural predators. The main influences on their survival are competition between themselves and their environment, and human activity - around 50,000 adult badgers are killed each year in road accidents.
Badgers are most easily identified by their black and white striped head - the silver-grey hair on their body makes them difficult to make out especially in poor light. They are not very vocal, although they occasionally make sounds ranging from whinnying in pleasure to growling and barking in threat. Signs of badger activity can be seen more easily than the animal itself. Look for evidence such as heavily worn badger paths with distinctive 5-toed footprints, claw marks on trees, dung pits, mounds of earth outside the entrances to setts, remains of bedding material, and coarse, wiry badger hair.
How we manage our woods
Today, badgers are protected by law, but they have been given protection in Forestry Commission woods for many years. In woods where we know there are badger setts, we manage forestry operations so they do not disturb them at key breeding times. And when we cut down and replant trees, we also make sure there is sufficient plant life for food.