European badger (Meles meles)

With its distinctive striped face, the badger is an unmistakable mammal in the forest, but as a nocturnal species, is rarely seen.

 

Elderberries are a favourite food of the badger.
The front claws of the badger are up to 2.5 cm. long.
Badger cubs at the entrance to their sett.
Close up of a badger’s head, showing the striped face and powerful front legs.

Global Distribution

The European badger occurs throughout almost all of Europe, only being absent in the far north of Scandinavia and Mediterranean islands such as Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. To the east, it is found in Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, northern Iran and Afghanistan. It also occurs in the Caucasus Mountains and western parts of Russia, as far east as the Volga River.

A total of eight subspecies are recognised, with many of those having very small geographic ranges – there is one on each of the Greek islands of Crete and Rhodes, and another is confined to the southwest of Norway. A more widespread subspecies occurs in Spain and Portugal, but it is the common badger (Meles meles ssp. meles) that is found everywhere else in Europe.

Distribution in Scotland

The badger occurs throughout mainland Scotland, except for parts of Caithness and the high areas of the Cairngorm and Monadhliath Mountains. It is absent from most of the Scottish islands, such as Orkney, Shetland, Skye, Mull and the Outer Hebrides, but there is a population on Arran. Although it is often associated with woodlands, the badger is at home in a range of habitats, including grasslands and suburban areas.

Because of its wide geographic range, relative abundance and overall stable population, the European badger is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, meaning that it is not facing any imminent threats at a global level.

In Central Europe populations have declined in the past due to outbreaks of rabies, but numbers have generally rebounded afterwards. It is listed on Appendix III of the Bern Convention as a protected species, but for which a certain amount of exploitation is possible, if the population levels permit. In the UK badgers and their setts are fully protected by the Protection of Badgers Act (1992), and by Schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).

The European badger is a medium-sized mammal in the Mustelidae or weasel family, which also includes the otter (Lutra lutra) and pine marten (Martes martes). It is a solidly-built animal with a low, stocky body and a comparatively small head. The body is a brownish-grey colour, and the throat, chest and legs are black, while the belly is paler. It has a relatively short but broad tail that is off-white in colour and about 15 cm. long. The badger is easily distinguished by the prominent black and white striped pattern on its head, and there are also distinctive white margins on the ears.

The badger’s head and body length is 75 – 100 cm. and adults can range in weight from 7 kg. in summer to as much as 17 kg. in late autumn. Males can be slightly larger than females, but may weigh significantly more. The seasonal variation in weight is due to the accumulation of fat reserves, to enable the badger to survive through the winter. The badger’s coat or pelage also changes with the seasons, being thinner in summer and thickening up for the winter. 

The legs are short and powerful, and each foot has five toes (unlike dogs and foxes, which only have four toes). The non-retractable claws are up to 2.5 cm. long and are used for digging and burrowing. 

The badger has an excellent sense of smell, said to be 800 times more acute than that of a human, and very good hearing. However, its eyesight is poor, due to spending a lot of its time underground and being mostly nocturnal. 

The badger lives in family groups containing an average of six adults, although groups of up to 23 have been recorded. It uses its claws to excavate a large underground burrow known as a sett, and this can have several chambers and multiple entrances. Sleeping chambers are lined with bedding made from moss, grass, leaves and bracken. Near the sett, the badger has a latrine, where it defecates. The badger does not hibernate, but spends the coldest part of the winter sleeping in its sett, living off its body fat.

Badgers reach sexual maturity in their second year, and mating usually takes place in the spring. Fertilised eggs undergo a period of delayed implantation, until December, and after a gestation period of seven weeks the cubs are born between late January and the middle of March. Litter sizes average two or three cubs, although there can be up to five. Blind at birth, the cubs weigh between 70 gm. and 130 gm., and are suckled by their mother for 12-15 weeks. Their eyes open at four to five weeks, and the cubs emerge from their sett at about eight weeks. The average lifespan is five to seven years, although exceptionally a badger can reach 15 years.

Although the badger is classed (as part of the Mustelidae family) as a carnivore, it is usually considered to be an omnivore that feeds on a range of animals and plants. In practice, however, about 50% of its diet in Scotland consists of earthworms (Lumbricus spp.) – individual badgers have been recorded as consuming up to 200 worms in a night. Other food items are insects (including bees and wasps), roots, bulbs, berries, fungi, carrion, reptiles, birds and their eggs, and small mammals such as voles, mice and young rabbits. 

The badger is also one of the few animals that preys on the hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), which it eats by turning the animal inside out and leaving the inverted skin untouched. It will also scavenge food from gardens or bins, and will eat cereal crops such as oats. 

Unoccupied badger setts are used by other mammals, including the fox (Vulpes vulpes) and European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Occasionally, foxes and badgers will share a large sett. The badger plays a role in the dispersal of seeds, particularly those of the elder (Sambucus nigra), as elderberries are a favourite food. As a result, young elders flourish at badger latrines, as do nettles (Urtica dioica), because of the nitrogen content in the dung.

The badger does not have any significant predators as an adult, although the European brown bear (Ursus arctos) may take one opportunistically. Badger cubs are more vulnerable and in the UK are sometimes preyed on by the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and fox. Elsewhere in their range, predators of badger cubs include the wolf (Canis lupus), lynx (Lynx lynx), wolverine (Gulo gulo) and eagle owl (Bubo bubo).

Like most wild mammals, the badger is host to a range of parasites, with hostspecific ones (ie those that live only on badgers) including a louse (Trichodectes melis) and a flea (Paraceras melis), while more generalist parasites include the deer tick (Ixodes ricinus). These are ectoparasites, meaning that they feed externally on the badger, and the animal’s grooming behaviour helps to remove them. Various internal parasites, or endoparasites, include a tapeworm (Atriotaenia incisa) and a hostspecific roundworm (Baylisascaris melis).

The badger is susceptible to the bacterium (Mycobacterium bovis) that causes bovine tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, and has been blamed for the spread of this disease, particularly in the southwest of England. Badgers are being culled there in an attempt to control the spread of TB in cattle, but the disease is not present in Scotland.

 

Alan Watson Featherstone

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