Meles meles is widely distributed in Europe, from Ireland in the west to northern Sweden and Finland in the north, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece in the south and central Russia in the west. They are well distributed through central Europe, including France, Germany, Austria, Poland, the Czech republic, Hungary, Serbia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Romania. Distribution is more patchy in the Ukraine, central Spain and in the Netherlands.
In the UK, badgers are most common in the south and west, being noticeably scarcer in the urban Midlands, parts of Scotland and parts of East Anglia. Some badgers inhabit urban areas, especially along the South coast of the UK, Essex, London, Bath and Bristol although they generally seem to avoid building setts in towns or cities. Indeed, in a 2011 paper to Acta Zoologica Lituanica, Przemysław Kurek reported that the distribution of badger setts in his study area in central Poland's Kampinos National Park was affected by human disturbance. Badgers appeared more anthropophobic (“scared of humans”) than the foxes in the same area, building setts significantly further away from settlements and preferring areas where human activity in sylviculture was low.
Ireland represents the western limit of their range and badger populations in mainland Britain and Ireland seem to constitute two geographically-distinct populations; populations across Europe and the British Isles as a whole are morphologically and generally distinct.
Badgers are absent from most UK islands, including all Scottish Islands, the Isle of Man, the Isles of Scilly and the Channel Islands. There is at least one resident badger on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, with fresh tracks and digging reported in late 2017, and badgers are present on the Isle of Wight, although this appears to be the result of introductions. In his guide to the island's natural history, published in 1909, Frank Morey wrote that badgers were fairly numerous there during the 1870s and 80s, with various reports of badgers being dug out and killed. Morey notes, however, that there is uncertainty as to whether tehy were really indigenous, or descendants of introduced animals. Either way, Morey states:
“There is no doubt that the badger is now extinct on the Island...”
In his 1990 book, The Natural History of the Isle of Wight, Oliver Fraser described the badger's “chequered career” on the island, noting that it was re-introduced to Lynn Common, near Newport, in 1925 and from there it spread widely across the Lower Greensand south of the chalk. According to former IW hunt master Michael Poland, in his book The Isle of Wight Hunt, this introduction was made by former master John Fleming in a bid to try and increase the fox population following a mange outbreak. A dozen badgers were imported from the mainland by the hunt and they apparently tookover many of the existing fox earths where mange mites were prevalent, forcing foxes to dig new ones free of the parasite. Fraser's distribution map shows the badger widely distributed in the south and west of the island, with a patchier distribution in the north and east. In the 2017 Isle of Wight Mammals Report, Richard Grogan notes that:
“... their spread across the north of the chalk continues with observations at Newtown, Newbridge, Shalfleet and Bouldnor being much more common.”
In 2014, a team of researchers led by Johanna Judge at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Gloucestershire published their assessment of number and distribution of badger social groups in England and Wales. Between November 2011 and March 2013, they surveyed badger setts in just over 1,600 grid squares and estimated that, on average, there was one badger social group per two square kilometres, suggesting some 71,600 clans in England and Wales. Comparing their data to the previous survey, conducted between 1985 and 1988, they estimated that the number of badger social groups in England had increased by 103%, while there had been little change in Wales. Writing in Scientific Reports, Judge and her colleagues note:
“We cannot ascribe the observed changes in estimated badger social group abundance over the ~25 years to 2013 to specific factors with any degree of certainty. However, in common with the conclusions of the previous badger survey, it seems likely to be the ongoing result of species protection and changes in habitat quality.”
More recently, in a paper to the same journal in March 2017, the researchers presented their updated estimate of badger abundance in England and Wales based on genotype data from hair samples and mark-recapture data collected from 120 setts. Unsurprisingly, abundance varied significantly according to habitat type – the average clan size was about seven animals, with about 3 per group in land class 3 (lowlands with variable land use, mainly arable and intensive agriculture) and up to eight in land class 4 (undulating country, gently rolling enclosed country mainly fertile pastures with some coastal areas mainly pasture with varied morphology and vegetation.). No setts were found in upland areas classed as mountainous, moorland or boggy. Using these estimates, and applying them to the known distribution of land class types, the scientists calculated that there are between 391,000 and 581,000 badgers in England and Wales, consistent with a marked increase since the 1980s.
In 2009, Elaine Rainey and colleagues published the Scottish Badger Distribution Survey, which surveyed most of the Scottish mainland for badger setts between 2006 and 2009. The results showed showed the highest estimated densities to be in the Borders and Lothian regions, with Fife, Grampian and Dumfries and Galloway exhibiting moderate densities. In the Central region, Highland and Tayside estimated densities were much lower. While the report does attempt to estimate the overall size of Scotland's badger population, the survey suggested there to be between 7,300 and 11,200 main badger setts in the country.
In the Republic of Ireland, a computer model created by Andrew Byrne and colleagues published in 2014 predicted between 12,200 and 27,900, likely about 19,200, badger social groups in the country. Byrne and his coworkers didn’t go as far as estimating total population based on this model, so the most recent estimate comes from surveys carried out during late 1990s. In 1999, Sarah Feore and Ian Mongomery estimated there to be 38,000 badgers in Northern Ireland, while Paddy Sleeman and colleagues calculated 84,000 in the Republic in 2009, suggesting about 122,000 Irish badgers around the millennium.
In favourable habitats badger densities can be considerable, with 38 animals per sq-km recorded by David Macdonald and Chris Cheeseman in Oxford's Wytham Woods in 1996 and 25 per sq-km by Lucy Rogers and colleagues in Gloucestershire's Woochester Park during 1993. Such densities are more likely to be observed in the south west of Britain, where badger populations are highest. More typically, we see 5-10 badgers per sq-km in good habitats, falling only one or two per sq-km in unfavourable areas with patchy resource distribution, such as moorland and intensively-farmed arable land.