‘I cannot help but admire the combination of flexibility and robustness that has enabled badgers to withstand millennia of environmental change and deliberate persecution while remaining true to themselves. Badgers are survivors, not just in the sense that the species is still with us but also in the more specific sense that in many places, hidden away through the land, individual social groups still cling to the sites that their ancestors have occupied for decades or even, perhaps, for centuries. Uniquely among mammals , badgers attach themselves to the very landscape. They remind us it is possible to survive change without surrendering to it.’ – Tim Roper
The badger is a fascinating creature about which most of us know very little. In fact, most of us have never seen one, although this may change as badgers become more common in our urban landscapes.
This book by Tim Roper [Collins. 2010] looks to be the best around if you’re interested, covering as it does all aspects of the natural history of Britain’s largest carnivore. There is also a chapter on bovine TB.
We have a complex relationship with badgers as Roper makes clear. One of our best-loved and symbolic animals, a creature of myth, fairy tale and fable as Brock - a gruff, strong but benign creature of the night - it inspires a sizeable national network of badger-watchers and enthusiasts and is a widespread icon. Badgers are also one of the most highly protected animals in our country due to legislation brought in to try and stop the actions of another sizeable minority – the badger baiters. (see next post). Such persecution has deep roots, as does the current furore over bovine tb.
Amazon has an extensive preview of this book from which I learnt the following.
Badgers originated in Southeast Asia and spread to western Europe about 3 million years ago when Britain was part of the European landmass. The earliest remains so far found, at Boxgrove, date from much later (750,000-500,000 years ago). Badgers retreated during the last ice age and re-colonised Britain (still not an island) about 10,000 years ago, living in the temperate forest alongside wolves, foxes and bears. There are very scant remains from the last 5,000 years but the badger must have been a familiar part of the landscape during Anglo-Saxon times (AD 500-1000) as ‘an estimated 140 Anglo-Saxon place names have their origin in the term broc (badger)’.
Badgers have been hunted for food since the Bronze Age and provided not only meat but also leather, pelts, bristles and fats. Roper says he once ate badger meat himself and ‘found it tasted of the forest from which it came, with flavours reminiscent of earth, leaf mould, pine needles and fungi, In any case it was not very palatable.’
Badgers were designated ‘vermin’ in Tudor times. Badger digging and baiting for ‘sport’ also originated in medieval times. In the 18th and 19th century, with the enclosure act and the growth of sporting estates, badgers were trapped, shot and poisoned by gamekeepers and also persecuted by fox-hunters.
The badger population was at its lowest in 1900 but was widely distributed and locally numerous by the 1940s.
HOW MANY BADGERS ARE THERE?
Roper writes that badger surveys in 1963 and 1985 recorded an estimated 36,000 and 43,000 badger groups (setts?) respectively.
[Slightly confused by this. According to DEFRA, the original survey was carried out in the 1985-1987 and the last one was conducted in 1994-1997. No figures are given as to the results. [Looking for these] DEFRA told Farmer’s Guardian:
“The 1990s survey revealed that badger numbers had increased substantially in the intervening decade. There is a commonly held perception that the badger population has continued to increase since then,”
Surveys of badger population in Northern Ireland and Scotland were conducted in 2008.
DEFRA has commissioned a new survey, which began in 2011 and will run until 2013, with a budget of £870,000.
This will resurvey the 1700 1km-square sites used in the previous surveys, which were selected to provide a representative sample of the landscape types in England and Wales. The number of setts on each site will be mapped. From this, extrapolations will be made to estimate the total badger population. The survey is being conducted by the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA)]
Have discovered this 1995 report - ‘A review of British mammals: population estimates and conservation status of British mammals other than cetaceans’ by Stephen Harris, Pat Morris, Stephanie Wray and Derek Yalden.
Whilst somewhat dated, it provides a good overview of some baseline data I was looking for:
‘Based on a stratified survey of 2455 1 x 1 km squares from November 1985 to February 1988, in which setts were classified into one of four types, the number of social groups was estimated to be 41,894 + 4404 (95% confidence limits) (Reason, Harris & Cresswell 1993).
‘Assuming a mean group size of six adults, the total British badger population is approximately 250,000 adult badgers, and 172,000 cubs are born each spring (Harris et al. 1992).
‘Of the total British badger population, 24.9% is in south-west England and 21 9% in south-east England, with overall 76.1% in England, 9.9% in Scotland and 14.0% in Wales (Cresswell et al. 1989).
‘Population estimates: A total pre-breeding population of about 250,000; 190,000 in England, 25,000 in Scotland and 35,000 in Wales. In addition there are about 72,000 cubs born each year. ‘
Approximately 61,000 adults and 41,000 cubs die annually.
‘Road deaths are probably the next major cause of death with approx. 50,000 badgers killed per annum.’
[See 2006 story in The Independent. Confirms 50,000 figure]
‘In addition, an estimated 10,000 badgers are killed illegally by diggers and a further 1000 killed each year in an attempt to control bovine tuberculosis in cattle in the south-west (Harris et al. 1992). ‘
‘However, sett losses, rather than mortality of individual badgers, probably pose the most significant population threat. Sett destruction often involves the death of the resident badgers,and where this is the main sett, can lead to the loss of an entire social group. Landscape changes, particularly those associated with agricultural activities, were the major cause of sett losses in Essex in the 20 years up to the mid-1980s (Skinner, Skinner & Harris 1991), ‘