European Badger Behaviour - Interaction with Humans

In many areas, people are well-disposed to badgers, often more so than they do other urban wildlife, such as foxes. Nonetheless, some dislike having badgers on their property as they are known to raid dustbins and compost heaps; they also dig up and eat bulbs and other crops – habits which bring them into inevitable conflict with humans. Furthermore,  badgers are protected under UK law, making it illegal to harm them or disturb their setts without a licence and reducing the actions landowners can take.

Badgers and the law

The primary legislation is the Protection of Badgers Act (1992), which effectively consolidates all previous legislation, making it an offence to wilfully kill, injure or take, or attempt to kill, injure or take a badger. Possession of a dead badger, cruelty or ill-treatment of a badger, digging for badgers or even tagging one without a licence is prohibited. The Act brings a penalty of up to six months imprisonment and a fine at Level 5 (up to £5,000, which is roughly US$ 9,130 or € 7,230).

Schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) prohibits the use of certain methods of taking or killing a wild animal and the Powers of Criminal Courts Act (1973) allows any property (including dogs) used to kill, injure or take a badger to be seized. There are of course exceptions to these rules and the Protection of Badgers Act (1992) allows licences to be granted for research purposes and to permit the intervention of local councils in the event of serious damage to property. The same Act also permits fox hunts to obstruct the entrances of badger setts to prevent a fox going to ground, provided a strict set of regulations are adhered to.

Badgers are protected by law in Britain and much of Europe. This legislation makes it illegal to interfere with a badger sett without a licence. - Credit: Alan Woodgate

In a paper to Biological Conservation, Linda Sadlier and Ian Montgomery at the University of Belfast looked at the effect that protective legislation has had on the badger population of Northern Ireland. Via a series of direct observation and survey questionnaires, Sadier and Montgomery found that not only was sett disturbance linked to clan size and number, but also that Northern Ireland's badger population is being constrained by high levels of sett disturbance. The authors consider that because most badger setts are constructed on agricultural land, off the “beaten track”, only landowners come across the badgers. Conversely, here in Britain, public rights of access across most arable and forested lands mean that destruction and/or disturbance to a badger sett is more likely to be spotted and consequently reported to the police. For more information on the legal aspects of badger protection, the UK Government's legislation website provides a concise summary.

Damage to crops

It is generally assumed that one of the main reasons some landowners dislike badgers on their property is related to the loss of earnings caused through consumption of crops. There are, however, very few data available to quantify the problem. A paper in Mammal Review in 2004 looked at badger populations in Luxembourg. In the paper, the authors report that between 1995 and 1999, Luxembourg farmers made an average of only 31 claims per year for crop damage by badgers. This was found to be equivalent to an annual economic cost of some €344 (£240 or US$435), which is considerably less than the damage caused by other large mammals, such as Wild Boar, Sus scrofa.

I know of no recent data from Britain, but in his review of badger damage published in the 1989 Mammals as Pests compendium, Roger Symes reviewed data from the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service's national mammal damage database COSTER, established in 1984. Between 1985 and 1987, there were 2,071 advisory enquiries made about badgers, most from farmers in the south-west of England. The most data (1,073 records) were available for between 1985 and ’86 and reveal damage caused by badgers feeding accounted for 18% of requests, while livestock predation and structural damage constituted 13% and 11% of requests, respectively. In gardens, the most common complaints were of digging, tunnelling under fences, damage to lawns and feeding on produce, particularly strawberries and carrots. In his review, Sykes also noted:

Most reports of predation involve poultry, but domestic pets such as guinea pigs are also taken. Lamb predation is frequently alleged, but post mortem examination is needed in each case, to establish whether an animal was killed or scavenged by badgers, and fresh carcases have rarely been made available for examination.

Damage to a cornfield in Hampshire caused by badgers. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Regarding keeping badgers out of areas, Symes observed that small scale garden protection was sometimes implemented, but this was often too expensive in agricultural situations:

The use of electrified fencing has usually been successful and some householders or groups of householders have been prepared to spend £70 to £100 to defend their gardens against badgers, but an estimate of £850 for a farmer to protect his oat fields effectively was not acceptable.

More recently, Niall Moore and colleagues published the results of a questionnaire asking about agricultural damage caused by badgers in England and Wales in a paper to the Journal of Applied Ecology in 1999. Almost one-third of the 150 responses they received reported having experienced badger damage in the 12 months leading up to the survey and nearly 60% considered the level of damage to have increased during the past five years. Most damage resulted from digging activity, although just over 21% of respondents reported crop losses. Overall, however, most damage appeared of little economic consequence on a per farm basis, although extrapolating up the biologists calculated a mean national £41.5 million per year, 62% of which was caused by burrowing. Where crops were damaged, wheat, maize and vines were the most common target.

A shorter paper in the Mammals as Pests compendium by Tim Roper, Peter Lüps and Shali Lycett reports on the damage badgers can cause to vineyards. This five year study involved analysis of 480 faecal samples from six badger territories in the region of a vineyard in east Sussex. Grapes were taken between September and November and, overall, accounted for about 2% by volume to the badgers’ diet. When the biologists included faeces from territories confirmed by bait marking to include parts of the vineyard, however, grapes constituted 64% of the diet by volume. In other words, grapes weren’t important as a year-round food to the badger population of the study region as a whole, but were eaten regularly and in large volumes by some badgers during the autumn. This also illustrates how even strong local variation can be “diluted”, even overlooked, when looking at the diet at a regional level.

Badgers can reach food about a metre off the ground by standing on their hind legs and are reasonable climbers if conditions allow. - Credit: Kevin Robson

While radio-tracking animals, Roper and his colleagues observed three animals taking grapes directly from vines, spending between 30 minutes and two hours in the vineyard each night; many grapes were knocked off vines but left uneaten. The authors also circulated a questionnaire to 100 vineyards across the country and, from the 96 they had returned, 21 (22%) reported some degree of badger damage. Roper and his colleagues only provide a summary of the results, but they suggest that 92% of vineyards where badgers were ‘common’ in the locality suffered some form of damage, with the most common complaint being that badgers ate or damaged grapes or damaged fencing (13% and 14% of replies respectively). Five vineyards that had suffered significant badger damage had resorted to using electric fencing and/or growing grapes on high trellises, out of the reach of badgers. Estimates of yearly financial losses to badgers ranged from £50 to £4,000, most being between £100 and £1,000.

Zoonoses

Badgers can also be carriers of parasites that may be problematic for humans and livestock. Lungworms (Metastrongylidae), hookworms (Ancylostomatidae) and rabies (Rhabdoviridae) have been recorded from badgers on the continent, while badgers in the UK are susceptible to a range of lice (esp. Trichodectes melis), fleas (Paraceras melis), ticks (Ixodes canisuga, I. ricinus, and I. hexagonus) and, in rare cases, mange.

In a paper to the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Sian Williams and colleagues at the University of Liverpool report the presence of Salmonella enterica in the faeces of badgers from 18 social groups in Chester, while Salmonella agama has been cultured from the liver and faeces of a badger found dead on a farm in west England. These bacteria, along with Salmonella binza, which has been isolated from a badger latrine, are important pathogens for humans and livestock.

Badgers are also very susceptible to bacterial parasites and, unfortunately for both themselves and most of Britain's cattle industry, they appear to be highly effective vectors for Mycobacterium bovis, which is responsible for causing tuberculosis in cattle (see Badgers and Bovine TB).

Road traffic accidents

Undoubtedly, one rather obvious human-badger interaction is road death. Statistics for badger-road mortality (Road Traffic Accidents, or RTAs) vary according to source, although most sources quote figures in the region of 50,000, which probably stems from the figure of 15% RTA mortality given by Ernest Neal and Chris Cheeseman in their book, Badgers. Given the variation in number, size and use of roads across the UK it is perhaps not surprising that there is considerable variation in RTA mortality in Britain.

A dead badger on a country road. Traffic collisions are a significant source of mortality for badgers. - Credit: Peter McMurdie

According to the Isle of Wight Badger Group, the number of badger road casualties has decreased slowly in recent years, with 88 road deaths in 1997, 77 in 1998 and 76 in 1999. Unfortunately, there are no reliable estimates of badger numbers on the Isle of Wight, which makes getting an idea of the impact of roads on this population difficult. Elsewhere, almost 70% of annual badger mortality Woodchester Park was attributed to RTAs by one 1997 paper, while nearly 50% of the annual losses observed at Wytham were the result of collision with vehicles.

On a more local scale, badger groups often report that specific roads, even specific stretches of roads, within their jurisdiction can be hotspots for badger casualties. For example, turning to page 13 of my local paper of 26th March 2004, the headline read: “Badger 'graveyard' on district's roads”. According to this brief news piece in the West Sussex County Times, stretches of the Fittleworth Road and the A29, as it cuts through Billingshurst, have seen unusually high numbers of badgers involved in road traffic accidents. I find that badger groups like to have road casualties reported to them. This way they can keep an eye out for such hotspots and divert their attention and funds to trying to reduce the impact on the badger population, often by installing “Badger Reflectors” on established crossings. These are small posts that reflect car headlights at the badger about to cross – hopefully dissuading it.

While certain stretches of road can be significant areas of mortality for badgers, the type of road can also make a difference. A paper in Biological Conservation reports on the effects of roads on badger mortality in southwest England. A team of biologists led by Philip Clarke of York University analysed information on when and where road-killed badgers were collected by DEFRA during the mid-1980s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that there was a strong seasonal skew in road deaths (more in spring) and that the number of badgers killed was inversely related to how busy the roads were. For example, the combined impact of motorways and dual carriageways accounted for only 5.5% of all recorded badger road deaths, while Class A and B roads accounted for almost 55%. Perhaps this reflects the tendency for single carriageways to cut through countryside where badgers are more likely to have established setts. The authors do point out that laws preventing stopping on motorways might have affected the data, leading to fewer carcasses being recovered.

Badgers are sometimes killed crossing railway lines, either through collisions with trains or electrocution on the rails. - Credit: Train Photos (Flickr)

It should also be remembered that traffic can also impose a significant barrier reducing and even preventing dispersal – further work by the lead author suggests that high traffic loads may discourage badgers from attempting to cross motorways, dual carriage ways, Class A and Class B roads.