Wednesday, December 7

The much-maligned badger

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The European badger’s coat of rather stiff coarse hairs has a silvery-grey appearance. — Photo by Trond Sætre Stegarud/Wikimedia Commons

WHILST a much-maligned mammal, a badger is no danger to humans unless cornered. For many a year, in the UK, they were hunted for their pelts and turned into the finest Scottish sporrans as kilt decorations and the hairs into shaving brushes. It was only in 1992 that the Protection of Badgers Act was passed by Parliament making it an offence to injure, kill, keep one as a pet, offer one for sale, or to interfere with a sett (a badger’s dwelling).

However, in the late 1940s, my late uncle, living deep within the countryside, found a very young badger cub lying alongside its dead mother whose leg had been ensnared in a trap. He took the cub home, reared it like a dog, and it followed him on his walks for a couple of years until it reached sexual maturity. One day it disappeared in search of a mate and was never seen again!

Badgers have featured prominently in children’s stories such as ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame, ‘The Fantastic Mr Fox’ by Roald Dahl, and more recently in JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series.

Global distribution

Worldwide there are 17 species of badger, 11 of which are found in Asia. In the UK, the European badger (Meles meles) prevails, whilst in the Malay Archipelago the Sumatran hog badger (Arctonyx hoevenii), Javan ferret badger (Melogale personata), Bornean ferret badger (Melogale everetti), and the Sunda or Malay stink badger (Mydaus javanensis) may be found.

European badger

This badger is known in the UK as brock from the Celtic broc meaning grey. In German, they are known as dachs hence the dachshund dog that was bred small enough to enter badgers’ setts to drive them out. Male badgers are referred to as boars and females as sows. Some, living alone in a sett are nomadic but the majority live in colonies or clans called celes, which can vary in size from two to 15.

With a barrel-shaped short body length of 91cm, short and powerful legs, this mammal also possesses strong claws and a short blunt tail. Its coat of rather stiff coarse hairs, which are whitish with a black band behind the tips, give it a silvery-grey appearance. Its underparts and legs are black. The distinctive feature of this species is its whitehead with a black stripe over each eye and ear.

Habitat and habits

Preferring woodland, bordering pastureland, it can also live in disused quarries, hedgerows and hillside cliffs. It is essentially a nocturnal animal, feeding on earthworms (60 per cent of its diet), mice, voles, frogs, snails, wasps, and even autumnal windfall apples and blackberries.

Badgers’ lives centre on their underground sett, made of chambers and tunnels about 14 to 26 metres long with several entrances. Both the boar and the sow keep the chambers, dug out by their sharp claws, spotlessly clean by bringing in fresh bedding composed of bracken, dry leaves, and grass by night with pits dug outside as latrines.

A very wary animal, it has no enemies apart from humans and with relatively poor eyesight it relies on scent in following well-trodden pathways in search of food and returning along the same when belly full. Should it wander into unfamiliar territory, it marks its trail by squatting so the scent from its annal gland is left behind then using that scent to find its way home. Before entering the sett, it scratches clean its claws on nearby trees.

Mating often takes place between February and October, but the fertilised egg does not begin to develop until December with an incubation period about two months. One to five cubs are born are born in February and they live with their parents until the following autumn and occasionally through the next winter.

Drought-driven urban badgers

Throughout the UK drought this summer, increasing numbers of badgers have been hunting for food and water in cities and towns. This drought has made the soil too hard to dig up earthworms and their water resources such as streams have dried up. Opportunistic by nature, badgers have been seen to scour rubbish bins and savage garden crops even entering houses via cat flaps in search of nourishment by opening refrigerators!

Threats to badgers

In some European countries badgers are hunted as meat and in other countries they are culled by gassing as they are allegedly seen as carriers of bovine tuberculosis. In 2013, random culling took place in my county of Somerset in dairy farming areas. This randomised culling has not ceased bovine TB as many of Britain’s top agro scientists suspected. Vaccination of cattle has proved more successful in the control of TB in cattle.

Fortunately, the two setts 250 metres from my house escaped the cull.

Malay or Sunda stink badger

This species is not only found in the Sunda Islands but also in Borneo, Java, and Sumatra. Originally thought to occupy highlands over 2,000 metres, it has recently been found at low elevations in Sarawak and even at heights of 10 metres along the Lower Kinabatang river in Sabah. On the IUCN Cites List it is seen as an unthreatened species and classified as of least concern.

Shape and form

With a similar shape to European badgers, they are much smaller, between 37cm to 52cm in length with a totally white stub tail. Weighing between 1.3kg to 3.6kg, their coarse black or dark brown fur covers much of their body with a distinctive white stripe running from head to tail. Stink badgers have an annal scent gland from which they can spray a foul scent for up to 15cm.

Omnivorous and only nocturnal, it feeds on invertebrates, worms, insects, and birds’ eggs using its very sharp claws to dig in the soil. Its burrows are only 60cm in length, which it either excavates or simply takes over from other animals. Females give birth at all times of the year to produce two to three cubs, which feed from her six teats. Little is really known about this badger.

Bornean ferret badger

Peculiar to Borneo, it is better known as the Kinabalu ferret badger and listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With a limited distribution in the Kinabalu and Crocker Range National Parks, it is also found in Penampang, Tuaran, and Tambunan in Sabah. Numbers of these badgers remain unknown but because of their restricted range they are thought to be in slow decline. They are found in essentially highland areas of evergreen and montane forests.

Size and colouration

Its fur ranges in colours from greyish, brown to black with a lighter coloured fur on its underside. Distinctive features are its white or yellow mask around its eyes and a stripe of white to red colouring running from its head to its lower shoulders. Small but long, weighing between 1kg to 3kg with a a bodily length of 33cm to 44cm, its distinctive feature is its up to 23cm long, bushy tail.

Diet, behaviour, and breeding

Essentially ground dwelling, nocturnal and omnivorous, and feeding on earth worms, frogs, insects, and fruit, they have been seen scaling trees in search of birds’ eggs. It lives in burrows excavated by other animals. When cornered, it too emits a pungent odour from its scent glands in a skunk like fashion.

The boars experience a four-month period of non-production lasting from September to December. The female’s gestation period is of 57 to 80 weeks long and the cubs are normally born in May and June in litters of between one and five. These are weaned and cared for by the sow until they are self-sufficient.

Threats to their very existence

Anthropogenic forces such as illegal land clearance and climate change are the main threats. Added to these is the threat of disease which could easily spread quickly amongst badgers living in a confined and protected environment. However, an important conservation project that will enhance the Bornean ferret badger population lies in the Kinabalu Ecolinc Project restoring the linkage between the two National Parks, thus protecting forested areas and indeed the badger population.

A significant period of drought, as experienced recently in the UK and Europe, could well drive Bornean ferret badgers into kampungs in search of food, much the same as has happened in British towns and cities.