At home in Rochdale I have easy access to the countryside surrounding Littleborough, Bury, Oldham, out into Whitworth and Rossendale. I make excursions on a regular basis and I have found numerous signs of badgers in the rural areas, and even in woodlands close to residential areas.
Image: A badger pathway
However, my recent work with Network Rail in the northwest has resulted in surpassing any count of badger signs I might have on a country walk. This is because the railway embankments frequently provide ideal habitat; often nicely sloped with well-drained soil, the banks are good for digging, whilst supporting scrub and trees for good cover and foraging opportunities. The linear nature of the railway means it provides a good habitat corridor for movement and access into the surrounding countryside.
The highest number of setts I have recorded whilst walking on track were in Cumbria, in rural areas where the railway passes through countryside supporting a matrix of woodland and pasture land. A mixture of habitat types ensures that certain food sources are present whatever the weather. Although badgers eat a variety of foods, earthworms are a favourite and are found in abundance in pasture, whilst woodland provides other food sources, including invertebrates, roots and berries.
I think it is safe to say that, at present, badgers are common in the northwest (long may it continue), yet, given their relatively large size, people don’t see them very often. Secretive and nocturnal and with an acute sense of smell, badgers will avoid people, usually only making contact if they cross roads at night.
Image: A badger sett entrance
Of course, it doesn’t help that much of their time is spent under ground. Badgers are often referred to as the 'JCBs' of the animal world. Typically, a badger clan will create a main sett, which will be a large, well-constructed home in a safe location where they can access plentiful food supplies. Badgers will also ensure there are several other ‘apartments’ in the surrounding area, known as annexe, subsidiary or outlier setts, used for security or overflow. A main sett might extend to around 200m, supporting a complex of tunnels and chambers. These tunnels may even overlap each other, creating a two-storey system. And, if it’s a good location, they will stay.
The badger population at Wytham Woods in Oxford has been studied by researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford (WildCRU) since 1987. There is a sett present in the woods that evidence suggests is at least 475 years old and still active. Badgers are territorial and habitual, they will follow the same tracks night after night when in search of food. In fact, they can be so determined to follow the same tracks that they will barge through fencing if it has been placed in their way.
Image: A badger sett entrance with discarded bedding
Their territories vary in size and shape and range from around 30-300ha depending on the quality of the habitat. They mark their territory with latrines – small dung pits, which are a good sign of the presence of badgers. Around active setts you might also find bedding (dried grass, leaves and bracken among other things, often discarded from the sett), 'snuffle holes' and scratching posts on fallen trees and tree bases. Badger pathways will also be evident in the area and it might be possible to find footprints or hair on fences and undergrowth.
Badgers, like all UK wildlife, have no choice but to adapt as human habitation expands and although badgers favour wooded countryside, they can also be found in more urban settings. For example, a study recently undertaken by Tim Roper at Sussex University showed that many badgers in Brighton have adjusted to urban living. They are present also on the Sussex University campus, where a sett has been constructed under a building.
Beautiful yet enigmatic animals, badgers deserve their place in the countryside as part of our native fauna. However their choice of sett location can sometimes be problematic. Badger setts can undermine railway embankments for example, or might be located in an area identified for development. Badger surveys are often undertaken as a requirement for planning. These surveys can be undertaken at any time of the year, although the ideal time would be between February to April, when badgers are active and vegetation is low.
If badgers are using a site, the surveys undertaken will help inform mitigation or avoidance strategies to minimise any potential negative impacts on the local badger populations. In some cases, if works will impact upon a sett, it would be necessary to get a licence from Natural England. A licence would detail the mitigation necessary to ameliorate the impact. If avoidance is not possible, artificial badger setts can be constructed to enable the badgers to move to a safer location, and can be effective. Ensuring any ecology survey work is undertaken at the earliest possible stage means that any necessary mitigation can be designed into the plans and will ensure that project work runs smoothly and is as effective as possible.
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