| There are certain British mammals that everyone can instantly
recognise and the badger must surely be near the top of this list. Yet how
much does the "average" person know about brock? How many have actually
seen one in the flesh? It is quite possible that our perceptions of the
badger are based on their sentimental portrayal on Christmas cards, and
our attitude to them conditioned by external stimuli. We may have some sympathy
for them when we hear horrific tales of digging or baiting. On the other
hand we may fervently adhere to a belief in the unproven link between badgers
and tuberculosis in cattle.
Their legal status
Data are available, to varying degrees of usefulness, for thirty European countries from a survey published in 1991. As can be seen from the map, the picture is rather unsettling: only eight countries afford badgers full legal protection. In the remainder hunting or trapping are either legal or quietly condoned.
There is nothing new in this. People have been hunting badgers for the pot for at least 5000 years, and the faithful Roman foot-soldier was rather partial to "brock-au-vin". In historic times badgers have been the sporting objective of the peasants: only at a very few points have they been regarded as royal game. This situation still exists in Britain. Mounted hunters would never set off to track down a badger as they would a fox or deer. In fact, statistics indicate that it is often the hardened criminal who is likely to be mixed up in unlawful badger activity.
In Britain badgers were first given legal protection by the Badgers Act 1973 but fuller cover was enshrined in the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. It is an offence to interfere in any way with either a badger or a sett. If a sett does need to be interfered with for a genuine reason, a licence must be obtained, either from English Nature or MAFF depending on the circumstances.
Despite theoretical protection badgers still cannot rest easy. Every year in this country, on average, 10,000 meet an untimely death. Dogs are sent down the setts to drive the demented badgers out, setts are dug and opened to extract them. They are maimed and beaten to subdue them and literally thrown to the dogs, to be mauled to death in baiting pits.. .and all in the name of a "sport" involving huge sums of money.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of all this—for us specifically—is that Yorkshire has one of the worst records. West Yorkshire and Harrogate District have had considerable problems with both diggers and baiters.
To put the 10,000 into some kind of perspective, 700 are legally put down each year in the control of bovine TB, but 47,000 meet their end each year in various other ways as shown in the RSNC report for 1990.
The badger in Craven
A national survey began in 1994, under the auspices of Bristol University, using sample ten kilometre squares. Craven is very poorly represented in the allocation of squares mainly because the last survey, nearly ten years ago, could not find surveyors in this area, and this survey is designed to compare the picture now with then.
A map was compiled in 1985 showing the distribution of setts across mainland Britain, North Craven is shown as either "scarce" or "absent or unrecorded". Nobody is really sure how many setts exist in the area, nor has anyone any real idea how big or small our badger population is.
In late 1993 the Craven Badger Group was formed with the initial aim of identifying setts, active and dormant, to determine the badger's status here and then to afford them the protection they deserve. So far fifteen have been located in the Trust's study area but six of these have long since been abandoned. There must be many more around and it is important that they are registered. A local example may illustrate why. On the line of the proposed Hellifield-Long Preston by-pass there is an active sett. When the final line of the new road was fixed, nobody knew—or reported—the sett. For these badgers the future is uncertain. I also know of one sett in Settle parish that was dug in early 1994, and of another one just outside the Trust's area, in Halton West, that has been dug in the past.
The badger has at least one trait in common with us: they will more or less eat anything, plant or meat. Many researchers have devoted hours of painstaking study to determine what they eat from looking at their dung. Given the choice and the chance, badgers will always plump for earthworms. This is their main food, particularly in the breeding season from February to May. If an area is devoid of worms, there will be few, if any badgers.
Other food sources include insects, small mammals (especially voles, moles, shrews and hedgehogs), birds and birds' eggs, grain and carrion. They will take dead or sick or injured rabbits and lambs, for example. They have neither the speed nor the agility to catch live ones. There is no proven evidence at all to support the assertion that badgers will take live, healthy lambs.
There is no one typical habitat type. They are so widely spread across Europe and Asia, across different vegetation zones, that there cannot be a type location. On a reduced scale this axiom also applies to Britain. Narrowing down to Craven the same conclusion can be drawn. The following is a list of habitats within which setts have been identified in the Trust's area:
mixed coniferous and broad-leaved woodland
broad-leaved woodland on limestone outcrops
open limestone grassland
open grassland on shales
open moorland on sandstone. I know of one sett, elsewhere within the Dales, built into the spoil heap of an old lead mine.
Where badgers decide to set up home is a reflection of several factors, notably food availability and local badger population. Given perfect choice woods would top the list. Throughout North Yorkshire, of 614 setts recorded in the last survey, almost 70 per cent are located in woodland, mainly broad-leaved and mixed. Clearly, though, if an area is well-wooded it follows that more setts will be located in woods, but in an area like the Dales, where tree cover is minute, there is a lower probability of setts being in woodland. I know of one sett in Ribblesdale, situated on open moorland with no hedgerow for miles and the nearest woods are either 3 or 4 kilometres away, depending on the direction. These are really at the limit of a normal nightly foray in search of food. Presumably the badgers here have chosen security and remoteness rather than ready food supplies.
Setts tend not to conform to altitudinal limits either. Taking the country as a whole, the majority are found below 200 metres (650 feet) but how much of North Craven lies below that? The highest known sett in the area lies at 480 metres (1560 feet) on an exposed east-facing slope, but there are setts elsewhere in the Dales over 500 metres high:
The only statement that can be made with conviction is that setts are built into slopes where the soil and subsoil can be readily worked.
To sight a badger in the flesh is either a stroke of luck or the result of patient watching at a sett. Even this can be fruitless, though, as hours can be spent, silent and still, waiting for brock to emerge.. .and nothing happens. They do not come out. There are, however, a number of clues that indicate the presence of badgers in an area.
Setts. If you have found a hole, or a set of holes, and you are unsure whether it is a badger sett or a rabbit hole, it is probably the latter. Entrances to setts are unmistakable once you have identified one. It may not be particularly large but if it narrows quickly it is a rabbit hole. Also, in setts, the edges and roof of the entrance will be rubbed smooth by the passage of bodies.
Spoil heaps. Immediately outside the entrance is a spoil heap which can reach a considerable size, being several metres in each dimension. If the entrance is active, there will be fresh earth on the heap with a path groove etched into it by the daily patter of paws.
Bedding. A sure sign of badger occupancy is discarded bedding just beyond the spoil heap. Badgers are very clean animals and change their bedding frequently. If too many parasites have taken up residence therein, or when it loses its softness, out it goes. On occasion they will take their bedding out on a sunny day, to air and dry it, before taking it back in again. Neither rabbits nor foxes (that often inhabit setts) do these domestic tasks.
Bedding consists of anything soft: grass, straw, bracken, leaves.
Dung pits. Another reflection of their high standards of hygiene is their use of dung pits some distance away from the sett. A hole is dug and used by all until full. Another is then made nearby.
Paths. Badgers are creatures of habit and set off nightly on foraging expeditions on definite routes, so trodden paths soon emerge. They are much wider than a rabbit trod. To a point a badger path could be mistaken for a human or deer path in a wood but when it goes under a very low branch, it is a badger's. Similarly, on open moorland they could be mistaken for sheep trods.
Paw prints. Confirmation comes when you spot their prints in mud, sand or snow. They are quite distinctive, having five digits and five claw marks per foot. If walking slowly the hind print will be superimposed on the fore print.
Hair. If their path runs under a barbed wire fence, or over a stone wall, they often leave behind tufts of hair; white, grey or black. They are not fluffy like shreds of wool left behind by athletic sheep.
Scratching posts. Near to setts, or along their paths, you may come across a tree or post with vertical, parallel scratch marks. Badgers use these to sharpen their claws, much like cats.
Two final points
Badgers are fully protected and one should always be very careful when investigating a possible sett. Landowner's permission should always be sought in the first instance. Badgers have notoriously bad eyesight but they make up for this with well developed powers of smell. They can detect a new smell at a distance and this could affect their foraging. If they know you are there, they will not come out.
If you know the location of a sett, anywhere in Craven or the Dales, the Craven Badger Group would like to know. Absolute confidentiality is assured. The writer of this article is Group Treasurer, and can be contacted through the North Craven Heritage Trust in the first instance.
Badger foot prints: left hind print
Badger foot prints: right fore print