Badgers (Meles meles) are shy, nocturnal creatures that are rarely seen during the day. They have a distinctive black and white striped head which immediately tells them apart from all other mammals in the UK. They are stout animals with a coarse, grey coat of fur and a small, white-tipped tail. They have short, powerful legs and five well-developed claws on each foot, which make them exceptional diggers. They have an extremely well developed sense of smell, which they use to recognise each other, find food, travel around and detect signs of danger. Head and body length: about 750mm, tail 150mm. Weight: average 8-9kg (in spring), 11-12kg (in autumn).
They excavate extensive networks of tunnels and chambers, called setts, which they use for shelter and breeding. Badgers are very social animals and live, on average, in groups generally comprised of four to twelve adults. Only one female badger in a social group normally breeds, although occasionally two or more may do so. Litters of two or three cubs are usually born in January or February and are blind for about five weeks. Female badgers (sows) collect dried grass and bracken as bedding to line the nest and keep their cubs warm. There are often several entrances to a badger sett, which may have large heaps of excavated earth close by. The cubs generally emerge above ground in April or May. They feed mainly on earthworms, but large insects, cereals, fruit and occasionally small animals, such as hedgehogs, rats and mice are taken. Wasp nests are occasionally raided for their grubs.
Badgers are common and widely distributed throughout Britain and Ireland but are scarcer in Scotland, Lancashire and East Anglia. The south west of England, in particular, has a very dense population. They favour a mix of deciduous woodland, open pasture and fields but can also occur in large gardens and along railway embankments where they often cause extensive damage. In 1988 there were estimated to be around 42,000 social groups of badgers and just under 200,000 adult badgers. By 1997 this had risen to just over 50,000 social groups and 310,000 adult badgers. The population is now probably stable. Mortality rate is high, with around one-fifth of adults dying each year. Road traffic accidents are a major cause of death. Although they can feel the vibration of oncoming cars on the road their usual reaction is to stand still. As a consequence, up to 50,000 are killed on the road each year. The maximum life expectancy of a badger is about 14 years, though very few survive so long.
Badgers may not be deliberately killed, persecuted or trapped. Where badgers pose a problem licences can be issued to permit certain control activities. The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 consolidates past badger legislation and, in addition to protecting the badger itself, makes it an offence to damage, destroy or obstruct a badger sett in any way. Some badgers are infected with bovine tuberculosis and consequently, particularly in the south west of England, they are culled under licence, and much controversy, because they are thought to spread the disease to cattle. Bovine TB is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis, which can also infect and cause tuberculosis in deer, goats, pigs, camelids (llamas and alpacas), dogs and cats, as well as many other mammals.