Thursday, September 20, 2007

The European Badger Meles meles

I am an amateur naturalist trying to identify everything that lives in my garden.

Photograph 1 may not be about to win too many wildlife photography competitions (!) - but after more than thirty postings describing the creatures that visit my garden, I am pleased to announce my first mammal: the European Badger (Meles meles).

I must confess that strictly I have not actually seen said badger(s) in my garden, but on the basis that: i) I do not know what else, besides a badger digging for worms, could have left the holes in my lawn in shown in photos 1 and 2 ii) it's not uncommon to see dead badgers on the roads within a mile of my house iii) lying in bed at night I'm fairly certain I've heard the 'wailing' of badgers (very helpfully, the good people of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University have placed a detailed series of badger-call audio files on their site) and iv) my neighbour has seen badgers in his garden - I'm reasonably confident to assert their presence.

Being one of the UK's few, large, wild mammals so much has been written about badgers (not least with regard to the UK government's controversial policy of culling them on the basis of their supposed ( but strongly-contested) link to the spread of tuberculosis in cattle) that it seems almost pointless for me to add more. Since my own purpose in penning my blog is to fix in my own mind some knowledge of my garden's natural history however, I'll press on:

To learn something about badgers I have been reading The Badger (E. Neal, The New Naturalist Monographs, Collins, 3rd ed.). With the greatest respect to the author, having been written in the 1940's, I did find some of the anecdotes just a little dated, but nevertheless came away with a much improved knowledge of this most secretive of mammals.

The European badger is spread across Europe and Asia from Britain to Japan. It is part of the Mustelidae family of mammals which includes weasels, otters and wolverines (none of the latter in the UK). An old, common name for the badger is Brock and in the UK it's not uncommon to find towns and villages with names like Brockhampton and Brockenhurst.

Badgers have the dentition of carnivores - large canines and extremely powerful articulated jaws - but their diet is basically omnivorous. In his book Dr Neal describes his studies into the stomach contents of badgers and reports finding, amongst other things: rabbit bones and fur; grass; beech nuts; shoots of Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis); 45 beetles of the genus Geotrupes; large numbers of earthworms; four hedgehogs (but only 3 spines swallowed); and a stomach full of wasp larvae and comb.

Badgers are communal, and live in underground dens called sets. Set tunnels can extend for more than a hundred metres into hillsides. In Dr Neal's book he describes his studies of the badger population in a 45-acre wood: Conigre Wood near Rendcomb (UK). Despite the many changes to the British countryside since the 1940's I was delighted to find the 2007 picture of Conigre Wood on Google Earth is essentially identical to the black and white photo in Dr Neal's book (Conigre Wood is the large slanted " j" - minus the top dot - in the centre of photo 3) (as here, I understand it's o.k. for me to use Google Earth images). In the book Dr Neal reports there being five badger sets in the wood of which two were large and regularly used. In all, the woodland supported 11 badgers in 1945. I wonder how many are there today?

One of the more remarkable facts I discovered from reading Dr Neal's books is that for badgers there is a very considerable delay between conception (i.e. the act of mating and a female badger egg becoming fertilized) and "pregnancy-proper" (my phrase) when the fertilized egg becomes implanted in the uterine wall. For three months or more following fertilization, the egg simply 'floats around' inside the female as a so-called blastocyst. Only once the blastocyst becomes implanted in the uterine wall does the embryo start "serious" development, with birth occurring 7-8weeks later. The result of this delay is that although a male and female may mate in Spring, birth does not normally occur until December or January. Badger cubs are weaned after 12weeks and will normally leave the parental set within a year.

Finally, for those of you tempted to listen out for the calls of badgers, you may want to take steps to ensure there are no owls in your neighbourhood! According to a manuscript from 1800 quoted in Dr. Neal's book:

Should one hear a badger call
And then an ullot [owl] cry,
Make thy peace with God, good soul,
For shortly thu shalt die.

Ear-plugs in bed from now on ?!


Richard Carter, FCD said...

I am pleased to announce my garden's first mammal...

At the risk of being pedantic, I'm sure you must have encountered the common mammal Homo sapiens in your garden before now.

Henry Walloon said...

Thanks for stopping-by Richard. Of course you're quite correct!

I suppose I really meant to sat "The first mammal I've written about on this blog" - there are in fact a number of others in my garden I need to get around to. Watch this space...

John said...

I read your blog and found it quite interesting not to mention amusing. Thanks for the break from life.

Henry Walloon said...

many thanks John - I enjoyed your's also!

Laura said...

Henry. What's up! The badger/TB thing is interesting. Whether the badger is to blame or whether badger culling is effective, one type of management I've not heard enough press attention about is the use of good nutrition. I find this idea appealing as the idea corresponds nicely with the conditions allowing rise in TB in the UK and doesn't involve killing things.

Principally, a farmer I read about, was feeding up his local badgers with essential minerals which are beneficial in providing resistance to illness.

The widening poverty gap, abundance of cheap, low nutritionial food and poor housing correlates to the conditions imposed by poor soil, narrowed and depleted habitat on the badger.

Mammals take a lot of feeding and your earthworms and lawn ruffling are essential for your local badger-folk and their health. big up the Oxfordshire lawn!

Henry Walloon said...

Hi Laura

Great to see you here again.

I'd not heard of the nutrional approach before. Fascinating. Three cheers for the farmer!