Badgers are much-loved creatures which do not hibernate properly, but become very dormant during cold spells, emerging to snack whenever the weather perks up. Nevertheless, after prolonged cold weather they have used up most of their reserves and become more active in late winter . . .
Thanks to The Wind in the Willows and Rupert Bear we have all been reared with the image of a slightly grumpy, but generally benign character. Certainly, with their characteristic black and white-striped faces, these bumbling giant weasels are one of our most instantly recognisable and appealing animals.
Their habits are appealing too. These are social animals, living in family groups of up to a dozen animals in a ‘sett’. Each sow gives birth to four or five blind and helpless cubs in late winter, suckling them underground for ten weeks before they emerge to sniff the spring air in early May. And like all weasels, they are scrupulously clean, using regular latrines. They also conduct frequent spring cleans, hauling out old bedding (usually bracken) to replace it with fresh material. Both habits immediately reveal whether or not a sett is in current usage.
They hunt by pottering along the traditional paths which traverse our fields, woods and pastures, munching anything edible they stumble across in the process. This makes them one our most visible mammals and are a frequent sight bumbling along quiet country lanes after dark.
This was not always the case, however. Until recently badgers were heavily persecuted as a threat to game and livestock. As a result, for most of the 20th century, they were comparatively rare. As intensive game keeping declined and farmers increasingly switched from livestock to arable, attitudes began to change. In 1973 the animals were first granted legal protection which has since been strengthened and codified into the Badger Act 1992 (they are the only British animal with their own unique legislation).
Badgers have no natural enemies apart from man and since protection numbers have doubled from 200,000 in 1980 to around 400,000 today (in comparison there are about 240,000 foxes). This increase has been matched by an expansion in range, although they are most common in western areas.
Most people are happy to live cheek by jowl with ‘Brock’ (to give them their ancient, Celtic, name), but many farmers are less pleased. They are powerful diggers and can undermine hedges and neighbouring roads, are implicated in lamb and poultry deaths and, most seriously, can transmit bovine TB to cattle.
With a little pre-planning it is easy to get a good sighting. The scale of digging makes it easy to find a sett. Visit this in daylight to check for a good viewing point and likely wind direction. Badgers have poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell, so it is generally better to sit above the sett with the wind blowing in your face. If the animals appear to have caught your scent, retreat and approach quietly from another direction – the animals will probably assume you have left, but be patient. If lucky, you will be rewarded by the sight of cubs tumbling and jossling around the sett entrance as they wait for their parents.
Although badgers do not hibernate as such, they become much less active in winter when their regular diet of worms, slugs and beetles are in short supply. They prepare for their long fast by laying down fat reserves. It is also at this point that adolescents leave the family to find their own territories. They can wander long distances in search of a vacant niche and unfortunately many fall victim to traffic in autumn and spring. Indeed, it is estimated 50,000 die on the roads each year – although even this huge death toll cannot keep a check on the population which continues to grow strongly.