The European badger (Meles meles) is a medium-sized carnivorous mammal; a member of the mustelid family, which also includes stoats, weasels, martens and otters. Badgers are found throughout Britain and remain a controversial species, particularly since legal protection in the early 1990s led to an increase in badger populations. Furthermore, the conditions in Britain are good for badgers and the result is that many form family groups called clans, which can sometimes concentrate damage and complaints. They have been implicated in the spread of bovine TB in the UK and, as a consequence, have been the target of government-led culling operations. They have also been arraigned in connection with the decline in Britain's hedgehog population and damage to cereal crops, particularly during periods of prolonged dry weather.
That which follows is a detailed overview of European badger evolution, taxonomy, biology, ecology and history. Certain aspects of the badger's natural history that warrant for detailed discussion have been split from the main overview and placed into their own Q/A.
European badger at a glance
Size: Adults usually 70 to 100 cm (2-3.5 ft) long. Weight varies seasonally; adults usually 6 to 7 kg (13-15 lbs) in summer and 12 to 14 kg (26-31 lbs) in winter. Average adult weight in autumn is about 12kg; that for spring is circa 9kg (20 lbs).
Colour: Silvery-grey to black body and tail with paler stomach (thin white abdominal fur) and dark paws. Easily identified by characteristic black-and-white striped face (mask) and white margins to their ears. White (inc. albino), dark and red (ginger or erythristic) colour phases known.
Distribution: Most of Europe (excl. north Scandinavia, Iceland, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily) and parts of Asia as far east as China. Found throughout British and Irish mainland and several islands, including Isle of Wight. Highest densities in south-west of England.
Longevity: Average lifespan 2 years, may be 7 or 8 in wild; can live for almost 20 years in captivity.
Sexing: Sexual differentiation arguable; no accurate way of sexing without direct physical contact. Males = Boars; Females = Sows.
Activity: Primarily nocturnal (with some crepuscular tendencies); time of emergence may relate to level of persecution. Often torporic for parts of winter, but do not truly hibernate.
Dens: Referred to as “setts”. Can be extensive, with primary sett (several entrances) and subsidiary setts throughout territory. Regularly change bedding (dried leaves and grass).
Territory: Territories of 20 to 50 ha (50-124 ac.) common in rich habitats; 150 ha (370 ac.) or more in poorer regions. Group (clan) may average 10-or-more in parts of Britain (solitary or pairs throughout most of range), which defend territory aggressively. Territory marked with scent (latrines).
Diet: An opportunistic species with broad diet, including earthworms (predominantly in UK), cereals, small mammals (esp. rabbits and hedgehogs), amphibians, insects, fruit and plant bulbs/roots. Have been implicated in predation of ground-nesting bird nests.
Reproduction: Mating can occur during any month (bulk February to May). Embryonic diapause yields mid-January to mid-March (peak early Feb.) born young. Litter size average 2; up to 6 cubs. Cubs appear above ground late-April/early-May (~ 8wks old) and can take solid food at 5 or 6 months old. Mature at 12 to 15 months old.
Behaviour and Sociality: Generally solitary or in pairs; exist in large clans where resources allow (no sign of cooperation within clan). No obvious pecking order observed (although considered probable). Scent highly important to sociality; clan members mark each other with secretions from subcaudal glands. WildCRU documented 16 acoustically-distinct calls from badgers at Wytham Woods (Oxford). Peak period for dispersal is late June through to August/September.
Threats: Locally culled as part of bovine tuberculosis control plans. No natural predators. High numbers killed on the roads—especially cubs during the summer. Protected by law in the UK.
Badger - by Timothy J. Roper
Collins New Naturalist -- 2010 -- ISBN: 978-0007339778
Badger - by Daniel Heath Justice
Reakton Books -- 2015 -- ISBN: 978-1780233369
Badger Behaviour Conservation and Rehabilitation - by George E. Pearce
Pelagic Publishing -- 2011 -- ISBN: 978-1907807046
Badgerlands - by Patrick Barkham
Granta -- 2014 -- ISBN: 978-1847085054
Badgers - by Michael Clark
Whittet Books -- 2001 -- ISBN: 978-1873580998
Badgers - by Mairi Cooper & John Ralstow
Scottish Natural Heritage & British Geological Society Booklets -- 1997 -- ISBN: 978-1853972546
Badgers - Secrets of the Sett - by Natural World
BBC Worldwide Ltd. -- 2008 -- ISBN: N/A
Badgers of Yorkshire & Humberside - by Adrian Middleton & Richard Paget
H. Morley & Sons -- 1974 -- ISBN: 978-0900657283
Britain’s Mammals 2018: The Mammal Society’s Guide to their Population & Conservation Status - by Multiple Contributors
The Mammal Society -- 2020 -- ISBN: 978-0993567339
Collins Field Guide: Mammals of Britain and Europe - by David MacDonald and Priscilla Barrett
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1993 -- ISBN: 978-0002197793
Mammals of the British Isles: Handbook, 4th Edition - by Stephen Harris and Derek Yalden (eds)
The Mammal Society -- 2008 -- ISBN: 978-0906282656
The natural history "bible" covering all British mammals with detailed coverage of their biology, behaviour, ecology and taxonomy written by experts in the field and referenced to the primary literature.
Mind the Gap: Postglacial colonization of Ireland - by John L. Davenport, David P. Sleeman & Peter C. Woodman (eds)
Irish Naturalists' Journal -- 2008
Nick Baker’s British Wildlife: A month by month guide - by Nick Baker
New Holland Publishers -- 2003 -- ISBN: 978-1845171131
Sett on the Heath - by RMG Wildlife
RMG Wildlife -- 2008 -- ISBN: N/A
Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation’s wildlife - by Roger Lovegrove
Oxford Univesrity Press -- 2007 -- ISBN: 978-0199548156
Simon King’s Wildguide - by Simon King
BBC Books -- 1994 -- ISBN: 978-0563364962
That Mad Badger - by Molly Burkett
Tandem Publishing -- 1974 -- ISBN: 978-0426111566
The Badger - by Thomas J. Hayden (ed)
Royal Irish Academy -- 1993 -- ISBN: 978-1874045144
The Badger (2nd Edition) - by Michael Woods
The Mammal Society -- 2010 -- ISBN: 978-0906282700
The Badger Man: Memoirs of a Biologist - by Earnest Neal
Providence Press -- 1994 -- ISBN: 0-903803-28-3
The British Mammal Guide - by Steve Evans & Paul Wetton
Isabelline Films -- 2015 -- ISBN: N/A
The Darkness is Light Enough: The field journal of a night naturalist - by Chris Ferris
Sphere Books Ltd. -- 1986 -- ISBN: 978-0718126902
The Encyclopaedia of Mammals - by David MacDonald (ed.)
Brown Reference Group -- 2006 -- ISBN: 978-0199206087
The Natural History of Badgers - by Ernest Neal
Christopher Helm Publishers -- 1986 -- ISBN: 978-0709918325
The New Amateur Naturalist - by Nick Baker
HarperCollins Publishers -- 2004 -- ISBN: 978-0007157310
The Social Badger - by Hans Kruuk
Oxford University Press -- 1989 -- ISBN: 978-0198587033
The Wildlife Trust’s Handbook of Garden Wildlife - by Nicholas Hammond
Bloombury -- 2014 -- ISBN: 978-1472915863
UK Mammals: Species Status & Population Trends - by The Tracking Mammals Partnership
JNCC/TMP -- 2005 -- ISBN: 978-1861075680
Urban Carnivores: Ecology, Conflict, & Conservation - by Stanley Gehrt, Seth Riley & Brian Cypher
John Hopkins University Press -- 2010 -- ISBN: 978-0801893896
Urban Mammals: A Concise Guide - by David Wembridge
Whittet Books -- 2012 -- ISBN: 978-1873580851
Urban Wildlife - by Peter Shirley
Whittet Books -- 1996 -- ISBN: 978-1873580233
Wild Animals of Britain & Europe - by Helga Hofmann
HarperCollins Publishers -- 1995 -- ISBN: 978-0007627271