The fascinating lives of badgers
Badgers are short, stout, powerful animals that live in underground 'setts' that can extend well over 50 metres long! Members of the mustelid family (which includes pine martens, otters, polecats, ferrets and the wolverine), the European badgers' range extends from Britain, across Europe and to the middle east.
The badger is one of the UK's most recognised and popular mammals, bringing pleasure to thousands of people and is a living symbol of the British countryside.
Our video library above shows great examples of badger behaviour so let's take a few minutes to go over the basics so you know what you are watching.
In the UK, badgers live in mixed-sex groups of between four and eight animals in underground 'setts'. A social group living together in the same sett is also known as a 'clan'. While badgers tend to live in groups, they do not always act cooperatively with their fellow clan members. Badgers are unique in this way as individuals in a clan will forage for food on their own, unlike other social groups of animals who might hunt together and reap the benefit as a group.
A badger’s sense of smell is a particularly important sense as it plays a vital role in communication. Badgers have several scent glands which produce a variety of odours, used for distributing information like warning signals and mating status.
Scents produced are also used to tighten bonds between social groups, with studies suggesting that clan members have similar scents. Badgers also deposit scents in their feces and will typically defecate in shallow dug pits known as latrines, which are found on territorial boundaries.
Badgers distribute their scent information through techniques known as squat marking (dipping their rear and lifting their tails) and allo-marking (marking each other). Can you identify this behaviour in our video library?
The diet of a badger is extremely varied, with badgers being described by expert Professor Tim Roper as "opportunistic omnivores". Earthworms are the core of the badger's diet, often by as much as 60 per cent. In a single night, an adult badger may eat well over 200 worms!
When conditions are harsh (hard frosts, dry or barren areas of habitat), worms can be scarce. Cleverly, badgers are able to shift to other food items, including snails, slugs and soft fruit like raspberries and fallen blackberries. Badgers will occasionally eat hedgehogs if normal prey items are not abundant - read more about badgers and hedgehogs below.
Badgers mate at almost any time of the year, but due to an unusual reproductive technique, known as delayed implantation, they have only one litter a year. Litter size ranges from one to five cubs, with two or three the more common number. Cubs are born in chambers lined with bedding material that the females (sows) gather and drag into the breeding chamber. Straw, hay, grass, fern are all commonly used, which keep the cubs warm. Most cubs are born in early to mid-February and will emerge above ground at around 12 weeks. At 16 weeks, cubs will be displaying most adult social behaviours, including grooming and scent marking.
Badgers also have a number of interesting housekeeping and territory behaviours. Read ‘How often does a badger change its bed?’ a guest article from Alex White.
Did you know?
The earliest traces of badgers in Britain have been dated back to three quarters to half a million years ago, according to a study by Yates (1999), meaning badgers once co-existed with wolves, brown bears, arctic foxes and wolverines, all of which once roamed Britain!
Badgers live underground in a network of tunnels and chambers called a ‘sett’. Badger setts vary from occasionally used "outliers", which often have single entranced tunnels, to vast, ancient underground complexes with multiple entrances. These larger setts can extend from 20 to 100 metres or more, with some of the largest having more than 50 entrances! Such elaborate setts can take many years to create and are passed down through generations – some setts can be more than 100 years old. These are the family homes, used, maintained and enlarged at will by generations of the same social group.
The badger can grow up to 1 metre in size and has loosely fitting skin, which makes it difficult for an antagonist to get a firm grip of the badger in a fight. A thick layer of subcutaneous (under the skin) fat develops during autumn in order for the badger to live off fat reserves when going into torpor during winter.
Body weight of adult badgers is variable and can depend on several factors; the differing seasons, the area in which they live, the amount of food available and their age. Badgers are at their heaviest in late autumn as they fatten up for winter. They then feed less, spend more time inactive underground, and their weight falls away. Sows (females) are at their lightest after giving birth.
What colour are badgers?
The short dark and white hair on the face gives the UK badger (Meles meles; European or Eurasian badger) its iconic striped features, with black ears tipped in white.
Most badgers appear grey in colour on the main body, with a lighter colour on the underbelly, although some can appear to be a shade of brown on the back and side. Badgers have black hair on their legs and chest.
Some differences in hair colouring can be staining caused by environmental surroundings and this is more noticeable in underbelly hairs. Yellow staining from the subcaudal scent gland can be seen in older adults.
Badger eyes are relatively small and are black.
There are no noticeable colouring differences between male (boar) and female (sow) badgers. Badger cubs are born with very light silvery hairs and after a few days the facial stripes appear; they then develop to have the same markings as adults.
Are there other badger colours?
There are other forms of pigmentation within the badger population, which can almost give the appearance of different species:
The albino badger is a light coloured animal and has mostly creamy white hair, though it’s unlikely to be completely white. The eyes will probably be red or pink in colour.
The leucistic badger is a condition where there is a partial loss of pigmentation which gives the animal an appearance of patches of light colour on the hair. There is no loss of pigmentation in the eyes, so the eyes will be black. This helps distinguish the difference between an albino badger or leucistic badger.
The erythristic badger has mainly sandy or gingery colour hair on the back and sides and the hair on the underbelly can be a shade of red. The eyes will normally be light brown in colour but in some cases they may have a reddish appearance.
A badger which is extremely rare is the melanistic badger and sightings of this animal are uncommon. The pigmentation of a melanistic badger is mainly black. The eyes will be black.
Leucistic badger in Oxford nature reserve - ©Hannah Shaw-Williams
Did you know?
Badgers have been living side by side with hedgehogs for centuries but will occasionally prey on them if their main food sources of worms and grubs are not abundant. Hedgehogs are currently undergoing a sharp decline in rural habitats and unfairly, badgers are often blamed. A 2018 report on hedgehog declines (read here), owed the reduction of rural hedgehogs to mainly habitat loss, through the intensification of agriculture and fewer hedgerows. This habitat reduction is more than likely affecting badgers as well. More work needs to be done to maintain natural habitats and to re-establish a balanced ecosystem for all species.