Badgers Meles meles are one of the most easily recognisable native wild animals found in the UK. They are often used as an icon of the British countryside and are rooted in popular culture and local tradition. Their ancient association with the land is exemplified by the many place names derived from the older names of the Badger, such as Brock, Pate and Grey. Local examples are Eshott Brocks in Northumberland, Brock Banks at Eastgate and Patefield Brow in Westgate.
Badgers are indigenous and records prove that they once coexisted in the British Isles with Arctic Foxes, Alopex lagopus, Wolverines Gulo gulo and Reindeer Rangifer tarandus, about 10,000 years ago (Roper, 2010). Badgers are still widely distributed across the North East as the distribution maps show.
The Eurasian Badger is the largest UK member of the Mustelidae or weasel family. Physically, the Badger is a powerfully-built animal with a long body carried on four short legs; their characteristic black-and-white striped head probably evolved as a warning flash to predators. They have five digits on their broad feet and extremely strong claws, which together with their strong limbs make them expert diggers (Neal and Cheeseman, 1996).
Badgers are nocturnal, but in spite of this, their night vision is generally considered to be poor and they therefore rely on a well-developed sense of smell as their most important sense. They have small ears which lie close to the head and their hearing is comparable to that of a human. Strong tactile black whiskers on either side of a flexible snout help the Badger feel its way through tight spaces (Woods, 1995).
Badgers are social animals and live in clans centred on an underground labyrinth of inter-connected tunnels and chambers known as a sett. Setts typically have several entrance holes with an associated characteristic earth spoil heap. The main sett is usually in continuous use and is often linked above ground to a series of annexe setts and subsidiary setts by recognisable, Badger paths or trods (Clark, 1988). Badgers inhabit a wide range of habitats but setts are most often found in woods and copses, scrub and hedgerow; however they can also be found in sea cliffs, quarries, moorland, open fields and green spaces within city boundaries, providing soils and topography are suitable for burrowing (Neal, 1986). Badger clans mark their respective territories with paths and latrines.
Badgers are omnivores: approximately half their diet comprises earthworms, and the remainder comes from cereals and insects. However, they will also take birds and small mammals when necessary and they have been known to plunder wasps’ nests in times of dry weather when earthworms are in short supply (Woods, 1995).
Apart from place names there are many historical records recording former Badger presence, some of the earliest being found as the head bounties paid for and recorded by parish clerks in their account books. Cowen (1955) provides a comprehensive history of the Badger in Northumberland and Durham, much of which is utilised in this text. The earliest churchwarden’s record he quotes is from 1667, from the churchwarden’s book of the Parish of Ryton, recording payment for 36 Fox heads and 1 Brocke head in Chopwell. Stanhope Church Parish Accounts show 8 d paid for “2 Broks” in 1703. That is just over three pence per head in modern currency.
Mennell and Perkins (1864) wrote that there were “considerable numbers” of Badgers in many parts of Northumberland and Durham; however by 1895 Sir Alfred Pease stated that Badgers were “practically extinct” in Northumberland and entirely so in the County of Durham. Sir Alfred was then the MP for Cleveland and an ardent Badger digger; in an attempt to bolster Badger numbers he imported and successfully established Cornish Badgers on the family estate in Cleveland (Pease, 1898). By 1903 Thomas Robson of Winlaton reported that Badgers were becoming more common in the Derwent Valley (Cowan, 1955) and it seems likely that they were never as uncommon in Durham as Pease believed.
Badger numbers were at their lowest during the latter part of the 19th century, slowly rising during the early part of the 20th century. The original decline was probably due to the deliberate persecution of Badgers on sporting estates and their recovery due to the migration of rural workers from the countryside to towns and gamekeeper numbers reducing as casualties of the First World War (Roper, 2010).
As well as the loss to sporting estates Badgers were also baited for popular entertainment and Cowen (1955) records that in the 18th and 19th centuries “large numbers of Badgers were caught for the so-called sport of Badger baiting and most public houses with a sporting landlord kept a Badger in a barrel in the yard for customers to try their dogs at”.
Casual records are held by Durham and Northumberland Badger Groups of setts, road casualties, sightings, persecution incidents and sett disturbances: the resulting map shows that Badgers are well distributed across the region and the Badger is currently quite common for such a large mammal. Durham County Badger Group has approximately 900 setts on record, including main, subsidiary and outlier setts. Northumberland Badger Group knows of over 500 setts but this could well be an under-estimation due to the difficulty of surveying so large a county. There are fewer records for the uplands, with most setts being found in the agricultural areas and towards the southeast of Northumberland (Mervyn Anthony, pers. comm., 2012). Setts are widely, but not evenly, distributed across the two counties wherever suitable undisturbed habitat exists. Setts can also be found in urban and suburban areas, although this may be the result of housing development encroaching into historical Badger territories, rather than Badgers colonising urban areas. Urban setts may cause conflict between humans and Badgers through damage to gardens, or at one sett in Durham where Badgers regularly dig up human bones. The altitudinal limit for Badgers in the North East is about 350 metres above sea level (Lesley Johnson, pers. comm., 2012).
South of the River Tees, Badgers are widespread though not particularly common across all of the large woodland complexes in East Cleveland (shades of Sir Alfred Pease?). This appears to have been the case for the past three decades. There has been the occasional record of Badgers in suburban gardens in the south of Middlesbrough, presumably stemming from a colony at Nunthorpe, but the main urban conurbation from Thornaby through to Redcar is devoid of Badgers. One sett which is particularly notable for its location is dug into the bank of bracken on the top of the tall sea cliffs at Hummersea near Loftus (Kenny Crooks, pers. comm., 2012).
Persecution of Badgers has a very long history, appositely condensed into the English verb to badger, meaning to pester or persistently harass. Badger digging has a long history in the North East with many long-standing setts showing the scars of former digs. Until 1985 Badger diggers would avoid prosecution by claiming to be digging for Foxes, proving their guilt being almost impossible. In 1985 Dr David Clark, the then MP for South Shields, managed to get the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act through Parliament which put the burden of proof, of not digging for Badgers, on the defendant. The first successful prosecution under the amended Act was at Derwentside Magistrates Court, Consett in March 1986. This was a significant breakthrough in Badger protection, giving the police the encouragement to prosecute and eventually leading to a local reduction in Badger digging.
Currently Badgers and their setts are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), the Hunting with Dogs Act 2004 and the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which makes it illegal to kill, injure or take Badgers, or to interfere with a Badger sett. County Durham Badger Group and Northumberland Badger Group work closely with all enforcement agencies to protect Badgers and their setts from continued persecution (Leslie Johnson, pers. comm., 2012).
Unfortunately Badgers still continue to be persecuted. In former mining communities including Durham and Northumberland Badger digging , baiting and lamping are still considered sport by a very small criminal element of the community, and some gamekeepers still kill Badgers. Whilst it has been illegal for fox-hunters to “hard stop” sett entrances for some years, this practice is still reported to occur, especially in Northumberland (Mervyn Anthony, pers. comm., 2012).
However the biggest threats to modern Badgers are the increasing numbers killed on the constantly-expanding road network, and the loss and fragmentation of their habitat to all kinds of development. National and local Planning Policy contains Badger-protection policies but making them work in an ever-shrinking countryside will be a great challenge. The problem of bovine tuberculosis is currently not to be found in Durham and Northumberland, but vigilance is required against any relaxation in the control of cattle movements, and the desire by government to find methods of controlling Badger numbers may eventually impact on the Badgers of Northumberland and Durham.
Written by Terry Coult and Louise Harrington (last updated Nov 2012)