The Eurasian badger (or Meles Meles for those who like their Latin) is the only species of badger found in the wild in the UK and Europe. Other badger species can be found around the world. Badgers are part of the group of mammals known as mustelids which includes otters, weasels and pine martens.
Badgers are widespread in Berkshire, although the total population is not known. They are rarely seen due to being nocturnal, so read on to learn more about these fascinating creatures!
Boars and sows
Male badgers are called boars, females are called sows and young are called cubs. They grow up to 75cm long, with a 15cm tail. Females can be told apart from males as they have more slender faces, shorter bushier tails and, when lactating, very clear teats. Should your badger lie on its back, grooming itself, you can quickly discern if it’s a boy!
They have five non-retractable claws on each front paw and very strong muscles, essential for digging.
Hair on the face and skull is distinctly black or white and gives rise to the unmistakeable striped badger face, perhaps the best known feature, but look out for the white tips of the ears too. The hair that covers a large proportion of the body is however white, except for a short section near the tip which is black. This gives rise to the overall appearance of the coat being grey. These hairs, known as guard hairs, are oval in cross-section.
How much do they weigh?
Badgers are at their heaviest at the end of autumn, having put on 2kg to 3kg of fat to see them through the winter when food is less plentiful.
How long can they live?
In the wild, mortality is high in the first 3 years of life. For those surviving past this, a badger living away from roads (something hard to achieve in Berkshire) may live for 5 or more, even up to 10 years, with longevity in part determined by how quickly its teeth are ground away; their main food, earthworms, is soft but the earth inside them is not.
Badgers are generally nocturnal but may emerge before dark during Summer months.
Contrary to popular myth, badgers don’t truly hibernate in Winter but they do become much less active.
The badger’s primary sense is smell, which is some 700-800 times more powerful than our own. When they emerge from the sett at dusk or are alerted by a sudden sound, they adopt a characteristic ‘nose up’ posture to check for possible danger.
Badgers scent mark each other and their territories. They have a gland under the tail to produce their pungent musk as a means of communication with members of their own clan and intruders. Their sense of smell is also vital for navigating known pathways around their territory (such creatures of habit!) and for foraging for food.
Their hearing is important to them too and they do react to nearby sounds, like camera clicks, so badgerwatchers beware! Badgers are not especially vocal but will make an unmistakable whickering sound. Growls may also be heard and purrs of pleasure too.
To hear for yourselves, watch (or listen to) this great video of the vocalisations of European badgers recorded by zoologists at the University of Oxford. - Credit: WildCRU
Badgers do not rely heavily on their eyesight and their eyes are small, in common with other burrowing animals. It is pitch dark underground where even the best pair eyes will be useless. Their eyes do, however, have a reflective layer to enhance their night-time vision when above ground. Their night sight is better than ours but to enable this they have given up the ability to see colours as we do.
Badgers are classed as carnivores but in practice are omnivores. Their preferred food is earthworms, taking up to 200 per night. Wet conditions in short pasture are best as the badger can simply take them off the surface.
Where earthworms are in short supply, their diet varies according to food availability and includes cereals, roots and tubers, reptiles and insect larvae, especially wasps. Numerous reports in Berkshire suggest that sweetcorn is also a favourite food. Ripe fruit, such as blackberries and apples, are welcome in the Autumn.
Badgers can mate at any time of year but generally do so in Spring soon after the females have given birth. However, nature has afforded the species a useful device, called ‘delayed implantation’, whereby a female can hold a fertilised egg inside herself without implanting it until around December with most badger cubs being born around February. No matter when conception occurred, this means that the badger cubs first emerge into the open at a time when food is most abundant and the weather mild.
There are normally two or three cubs in a litter, these remaining underground usually until April or May. Cubs in the same litter may be fathered by different males.
The fragility of the female’s pregnancy and the high mortality in cubs explains why Natural England imposes tight restrictions on building works near badger setts between December and June. During this period, for example, the use of power tools is prohibited.
Badgers are social animals but not sociable. There will be a dominant boar and sow in a clan. Often, non-dominant males will be driven away and must find a new clan to join. Subordinate females tend to be more tolerated. However, should they become pregnant, they will be harassed by the dominant sow, and may move to a subsidiary sett to give birth and raise the cubs.
Badgers are important in maintaining a balanced ecology in an area. Removing badgers distorts populations of other predator and prey species. Some have speculated that the brown hare has declined where badger populations have been reduced since fox populations have increased.
Badgers have also been identified as important seed distributors, helping to spread the beech and other seed which have made our characteristic Berkshire beech woodlands.