Adaptation Biodiversity Habitats

Badgers – Engineers of the Forest

‘“You really needn’t fret, Ratty” added the Badger placidly. “My passages run further than you think and I’ve bolt-holes to the edge of the wood in several directions, though I don’t care for everybody to know about them.’

(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows)


Possible abandoned badger earthworks at Dorney. Credit: M. Harrison.

Those of us who read, or had read to us, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows will harbour fond memories of the reserved but kindly and courageous Badger. Although we cannot speak for the moral character of these woodland creatures outside the realm of fiction, they are certainly ingenious and captivating. They share with their fictional counterpart their natural timidity and they are certainly handy in a fight, although they are not confrontational.

The badger is one of the natural civil engineers of the animal world and their underground dwellings, known as ‘setts’ can be enormous. Indeed, some of these setts have tunnel systems that may extend as far as 100 metres, with many different entrances.  Looking at their physical characteristics, you can see that they are well adapted for tunnelling, with their stocky compact bodies, short powerful limbs and strong curved ‘scoop’ claws.

Badgers live together in groups or ‘clans’, although their living arrangements are not necessarily collaborative: individuals may forage separately for food.

They are omnivores and adapt their feeding habits to what is available. Earthworms form a large part of their diet. Fruits and berries are also consumed, again depending on season and availability.

Credit: Vincent von Zalinge, Unsplash

Mating occurs in summer-autumn, and the species benefits from an adaptation known as ‘delayed implantation’, which means that the fertilised ova do not become fully implanted in the uterine wall until spring. In this way, the birth of the cubs is delayed until the warmer weather arrives. By the time they are a few months old, the cubs are able to hunt for themselves, and will leave their mother at around six months.

Although badgers do not hibernate, they enter a state of torpor (deep sleep) for around three weeks. This differs from hibernation, in that it does not involve the major physiological changes such as extreme bradycardia (slow heart beat) seen in hibernating mammals.

Currently, the main threat to badgers is man, although juvenile badgers are sometimes taken by foxes, eagles, buzzards and, occasionally by dogs. Their underground dwellings offer secure refuges for the raising of cubs, who do not emerge on the surface until they reach about twelve weeks old. Follow the link below to see a clip of badger cubs at play!

The badger’s colouring is highly distinctive, with that broad white stripe running down the centre of its face. Ernest Neal, writing about these creatures in the 1940s, was perplexed by this colouring that offered no apparent protection in terms of camouflage. He concludes, with the help of some earlier research, that such striking black and white markings tend to belong to animals with very effective defence mechanisms, and serve to warn off would-be predators to avoid the risk and waste of energy that would be expended in a fight.[1]

Badgers are truly ‘creatures of the wild wood’ and to the extent that our woodlands are under threat, so are these fascinating animals. A measure of protection is now in place in that, where proposed construction sites, including roadworks affect their habitat, then efforts are made to avoid disrupting their breeding.

There is an ongoing controversy surrounding the role of badgers in spreading bovine TB, a highly infectious form of the disease that affects cattle. The incidence of this disease has been increasing and has resulted in the culling of herds, with disastrous consequences for farmers.  The scientific evidence suggests that there is transmission from badgers to cattle (and probably vice versa) but badger conservation organisations maintain that the primary route of transmission is from cattle to other cattle. Badger culls are still being pursued as part of the government’s bovine TB management strategy, although doubt has been raised as to their efficacy.  The evidence picture is complex, as this paper from The Biologist indicates:

If you want to see badgers in the wild, you will need to identify a sett, and go to the woods at dusk, or later, find an inconspicuous vantage point and be prepared for a long wait!

By M. Harrison.

[1] Ernest Neal, The Badger (London: Collins, 1948) p.9 accessed: 21-3-21