Species Profile: Badgers

A guest blog by Nicole Baxter (EP Ecology Assistant Ecologist)

European badgers (Meles meles) are mammals belonging to the family Mustelidae (which also includes otters, pine martens and weasels). Found across the UK and Europe, they are recognisable by their characteristic black and white faces. They are the UK’s biggest terrestrial predator, known to eat hedgehogs and other small mammals as well as worms, insects, eggs, fruit, and plants. They also consume wasp’s nests and cereals, and will opportunistically feed on rubbish left by humans. Badgers are most active at night and live in setts (which comprise underground networks of tunnels). They can be found on farmland and urban areas, grasslands and woodlands, preferring dry banks to dig their homes – where the chance of the ground becoming waterlogged is lower.

Badger Ecology

Each badger clan (usually a family group) has its own territory; a male badger is a boar, a female a sow, and a young badger is a cub. If there is a high density of badgers in the area, aggression can arise between separate clans defending their feeding grounds. Each clan will have one main sett; this will be used year-round for breeding. Main setts are often associated with several active holes; there may be big spoil-heaps and well-worn paths connecting them to other setts. Annexe setts are often close to the main sett, but may have fewer entrances, or is disused at certain times of the year. Subsidiary setts have fewer holes still, and outlier setts are often singular holes found near territory boundaries.

Badgers can mate all year round, but will delay implanting their fertilised eggs into their uterus lining until December, so that cubs will be born between January and March (to coincide with springtime where there is usually an abundance of food). Up to five cubs can be born in one litter and badgers can live up to fifteen years old. Badgers do not hibernate, but severely reduce their activity in winter to sleep, generally living off of fat reserves.

Why Do You Need to Do Badger Surveys?

Due to development and urbanisation, badgers can come into conflict with landowners and people. Farmers are often concerned that badgers may spread bovine tuberculosis to livestock; there is controversy over whether vaccines or culls are more efficient as a protective method. Some people practise badger baiting – a sport using dogs to intentionally seek and harm badgers; it was outlawed in 1835. In addition, almost 50 thousand badgers suffer from road accidents every year – it is clear that humans have a profoundly negative effect on wildlife, and need to improve this by monitoring numbers and protecting setts.

Badgers are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act (1992) – it is illegal to kill or injure badgers, disturb a badger occupying a sett, or obstruct, damage or destroy a badger sett. If you are planning to develop, you will generally need to survey for protected species, which includes badgers. Any sett that is occupied, or in use, is protected by law. If your planning works cannot avoid disturbing them, you will need to apply for a license to interfere with the sett. These can be obtained from NatureScot or the other Statutory Nature Conservation Organisations, and are considered on a case-by-case basis.

How Do You Survey Badgers?

During a badger survey, potential sett entrances should be identified by walking through appropriate habitats with their location marked, along with the number of holes and how many are in use. Entrance holes are broader rather than taller, having a characteristic D-shape. Badgers clean out discarded bedding – this can include moss, leaves and/or grass, and often contains hairs (which have a distinctive oval-shape in cross section). However, foxes and rabbits can also occupy setts when not in use.

After initial badger signs are spotted, further monitoring to classify sett types and activity levels are needed. Sand and/or twigs can be used to cover holes, to then look for the clearing of this debris, or any fresh footprints left behind – implying the sett is in use. It is more reliable to use camera-traps – these are set up to face the potential sett entrances, giving time-stamped data of when (and how many badgers) have come in and out. This helps to identify main breeding setts.

What If Badgers Are Affected by Development?

The type of sett can often be identified from the footage of badger activity. Different sett types have different levels of protection; if a main sett needs to be closed, a new artificial sett must be built. However, any sett that is in use is protected by law. Careful avoidance, mitigation or compensation measures need to be considered before any action is taken. This could include measures such as adapting your planning permission, creating buffers to protect from development works, or maintaining habitat connectivity (e.g., underpasses). Developers should also consider creating new habitat and foraging areas; badgers cannot be translocated, and conflict can arise between clans if territories are encroached. Each situation will be different and needs to be carefully considered; professional ecologists must be consulted.

EP Ecology Ltd. provides these services, from preliminary assessments to specific badger surveys – gathering robust data for analysis. This consequently allows us to advise clients on the necessary course of action – for the welfare of badgers and to help prevent you breaking the law. For further information on badger protection, visit the Scottish Badgers website.