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Badgers (Meles Meles)
Badgers are nocturnal, powerful, social animals. They live much of their lives below ground in family groups, and, sadly, the only time many people see them is as carcases on the roads, victims of today’s high-speed and increasingly busy traffic. Anyone lucky enough to watch them in the wild as they emerge, groom, feed and interact will understand why these iconic animals hold such a place in the nation’s affections.
Badgers are supreme diggers, and it seems likely that their name is derived from the French for digger-becheur. Typically in the wild they live for five to seven years, though exceptionally some survive until they reach 12 or 13, even more. Females are called sows, males are known as boars. The young are cubs.
Body weight of adult badgers varies with the season, 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 are at their lightest after giving birth.
Research at Woodchester Park, in Gloucestershire, where badgers have been studied since the seventies, showed that typically boars weighed around 1kg heavier than sows throughout the year, averaging around 9.3kg compared to sows at a touch over 8kg.
Woodchester has one of the highest known badger densities anywhere, so competition for food is keen, which explains why badgers in Somerset, for example, where there is less competition, tend to be considerably heavier, boars averaging 11.6 kg and sows just over 10 kg. Some of the heaviest British badgers recorded have reached weights of 23-27 kg.
Other than the genitalia, normally visible only when badgers sit up to scratch or lie back, there are no obvious, utterly reliable visual differences between the sexes, though boars tend to be heavier built, have a broader head, the nose may seem blunter when viewed from the side, and the tail is often thinner and whiter. When a sow is heavily lactating her glands can often be seen. However, many experienced badger watchers admit that they have often failed to correctly identify boars from sows, and it’s not until, for example, a boar starts to suckle cubs in full view that “he” becomes “she”.
How many badgers are there? Based on the most recent national survey of badger setts, carried out in 1997, which assumed an average of six to each main (breeding) sett, the UK’s badger population is put at around 300,000. Defra is shortly to produce a report with updated estimates. Claims of an explosion in badger numbers can be discounted.
Badgers are members of the weasel family (the Mustelidae), a group of small to medium-sized mammals with longish bodies carried on short legs. They include weasels, stoats, polecats, pinemarten and otters . All have musk glands that produce strong-smelling secretions and, as we explain later, these play an important role in badgers’ territorial defence and social bonding.
Lots of books have been written about badgers, as a spot of internet Googling will establish, but there are some authors whose contributions mark them as outstanding. Pre-eminent among these is the late Dr.Ernest Neal -“the patron saint of badgers”, a man whose unrivalled expertise was acknowledged the world over. Any book carrying his name as author is well worth reading, especially his last, Badgers which he jointly authored with Dr Chris Cheeseman, the professional biologist who for many years led the Central Science Laboratory’s Wildlife Diseases Branch, carrying out decades of badger research at Woodchester Park, near Stroud, Gloucestershire. The combined knowledge and experience of these two authors makes this Poyser Natural History book an exceptional reference work. No longer in print, it can however be obtained by searching the web or visiting bookshops.
More recent, and another heavyweight book of considerable significance, is Badgerby Professor Timothy J. Roper. A Collins publication it explores every aspect of the biology and behaviour of badgers and draws on over 20 years of extensive study of the species. A new departure for the publishers’ New Naturalist Library it is their replacement for the first volume in the original monograph series-Ernest Neal’s The Badger.
Lighter, but highly readable, very popular and a great introduction to badgers is the book of that name by Michael Clark. An illustrator and patron of the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Badger Group Michael lives in Hertfordshire and has the good fortune to have badgers regularly visiting his orchard, which has its own very well used wildlife-watching hide. His book Badgers is a Whittet Books publication and can be purchased from our online shop here.
Another recent, very readable and well received book that also deals extensively with the rehabilitation and rescue of other species as well is Badger Behaviour Conservation & Rehabilitation by George Pearce, the son of a farmer, for many years himself a farmer, and more recently a badger consultant. Published by Pelagic Publishing this book is the result of a lifetime’s experience watching, learning about, rescuing and rehabilitating badgers. It has a section on badger consultancy work and-as we have indicated earlier-detailed recommendations on the design and build of artificial setts.
Ours is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but well recommended books available from the Mammal Society include The Badger (second edition) by Michael Woods, available from our online shop here and for children, Mammal Action: The Badger Book by Anna Jones.