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Badger bedding

Badgers would probably get pretty cold and uncomfortable underground if they were to simply lie on the damp, hard earth so, as befits these highly intelligent animals, bedding material is taken in to add a degree of creature comfort to the sett whilst also helping the badgers to reduce heat loss and keep warm.

What do badgers use as bedding?

That's a good question. Brought in as a lining for sleeping and breeding chambers, the material used varies with site location and can consist of almost any relatively readily collectable soft(ish) vegetation.

Hay and course grass, when available, is often favoured over all else, although not invariably as can be seen in 'An arduous journey with straw' (4), below. Straw is also readily used and so is dry bracken, whilst at setts deep in the woods, fallen leaves are frequently collected from the forest floor. If needs be, however, just about any plant material may be pressed into service, including in spring and early summer, the green leaves of bluebells and wild garlic. Dry material is preferred, although sometimes damp bedding is taken in which may, through natural fermentation, provide additional warmth.

Sticks, too, are sometimes taken underground, on occasion by accident, at other times seemingly by design. 'A badger cub takes bedding underground' (2), below, shows sticks being taken down amongst bundles of leaves, whilst it's been suggested, maybe somewhat implausibly, that sticks are sometimes used as a layer between the damp earth and the bedding, but whether this happens frequently is anybodies' guess.

How do badgers collect and transport bedding?

Badgers use their front claws to gather loose material, such as cut hay and fallen leaves, into bundles ready for transportation back to the sett, whilst plants will be scratched up, again with the front claws, or else bitten off and bundled.

Although not a particularly graceful activity, bedding transportation when undertaken by a determined badger is extremely effective. Normally, bundles of material are hugged to the badger's chest and kept in place by the chin and forelegs as the badger jerkily shuffles backwards towards the sett, miraculously without ever looking where it's going - presumably following scent trails. This backwards shuffle continues right the way down into the sett entrance.

In some cases, however, material is picked up and carried in the mouth - this is very unusual and is assumed to be most practical when small amounts are to be carried over relatively short distances. 'Badgers emerge ready for a night's activity and intermittently take in bedding' (1), below, includes an example of this behaviour.

(1) Badgers emerge ready for a night's activity and intermittently take in bedding - 9.52 minutes

The sow is first to emerge, well before dusk. She's hesitant, not completely sure whether it's safe to come out. Twenty-five minutes later, three cubs follow her. One of the cubs nervously heads back towards the sett entrance, sniffs the air but finds no real cause for alarm.

Minutes later, bedding is taken underground, carried in traditional fashion, clasped against the chest using the front legs as the animal backs into the sett. And then most unusually, the sow takes in more bedding, this time carried in her mouth and left at the tunnel entrance, maybe for a cub to take fully underground.

A roe buck nonchalantly passes by in the background, but no badgers are visible at this time although the three cubs eventually re-appear. They don't stray far from the sett and one even contributes to the bedding store by taking in a few leaves.

All soon dash underground despite there being no obvious cause for alarm but their senses, ever attuned to identify danger, clearly picked up something. Maybe the roe buck remained nearby and was heard in the undergrowth. But whatever it was that prompted flight is soon forgotten by one cub that resumes bedding duties. The sow, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen - she has left them to look after themselves.

A grey squirrel calls whilst song thrush, blackbird and robin sing.

(2) A badger cub takes bedding (and sticks) underground - 2.08 minutes

This video follows on from that at (1) and shows a lone cub in the early hours of the following morning busy at work taking fallen leaves down into the same sett entrance. Sticks, too, are inadvertently included in the bundles of leaves. The cub is from the current year's litter and is probably around three to four months old. At this relatively tender age, it has already developed many, if not all, of the skills necessary to gather bedding!

Routes back to the sett are not always straight-forward

The route back to the sett can sometimes provide badgers with what appear to be substantial challenges, but these resourceful creatures are nothing if not determined, flexible, problem solvers that can make light of difficult terrain as illustrated in 'An arduous journey with straw' (4), below.

When are the peak periods of bedding collection?

Although on many nights an intermittent activity with maybe only a couple of bundles brought back, bedding collection may alternatively occupy a badger for some considerable time, particularly when plentiful, suitable dry material is available.

Peak periods for bedding collection follow a logical pattern and, for example, occur in preparation for winter; when the old bedding is well past its sell-by-date - when it's excessively damp or simply worn out; when the material is needed to cope with changing family circumstances, for example, in the run-up to the birth of cubs and during the time immediately afterwards when the youngsters are confined below ground; when the occupied part of the sett is being extended; and when previously disused setts are brought back into use.

A job for the youngsters

And it's not only adults that are tasked with these chores, for as is seen in 'A badger cub takes bedding underground' (2) and 'Two badger cubs take in bedding material whilst the adults search for food' (3), below, show, cubs also engage in this activity and appear to need little training or encouragement from the adults - it is a completely natural behaviour with the necessary skills developed from a very young age.

Why is all badger bedding not taken underground?

In times of plenty, clumps of bedding may be dropped along the route back to the sett and never retrieved, whilst similar clumps are a familiar sight around some setts although clumps seen around setts may often be of used bedding brought out to air before being taken back underground a number of days later.

But not only are clumps of bedding abandoned around the setts, some occasionally are left to block sett entrances in what has been suggested are attempts to keep out the worst of the weather in cold, windy conditions. But whilst this may sometimes be the case, it is not always so, for a sett entrance was blocked by bedding for a number of nights at the very sheltered sett shown in 'Two badger cubs take in bedding material whilst the adults search for food' (3), below, after a well-grown cub had collected freshly cut hay in the midst of the summer. Here it seems that the clump was just too big to fit into the tunnel entrance or else the cub simply lost interest and abandoned its work.

(3) Two badger cubs take in bedding material whilst the adults search for food - 1.28 minutes

Here three adult badgers in the foreground feed on peanuts provided for them, whilst a current year's cub, probably aged five or six months, gathers newly cut hay for use as bedding and drags it backwards into the area of the sett, which is hidden amongst the background vegetation.

The cub somewhat tentatively re-appears, steps over a bundle of bedding previously dropped by itself or another, and almost dances into view, maybe trying to encourage the adults to join in the game or else as a playful act of defiance. The adults, however, ignore the overtures and continue feeding.

Not in the least bit disheartened by the snub, the cub disappears from view, collects another bundle of bedding and reappears together with a sibling engaged in the same activity.

The adults, meanwhile, enjoy their food before casually wandering off, content that housekeeping duties have been more than adequately undertaken by the kids, both of which have already developed all of the skills necessary for this task.

(Easy access at this time to newly cut hay was almost bound to stimulate bedding collection - this material adjacent to the sett was surely too good to resist. But what prompted the cubs to work so hard and why didn't the adults join in? Was this an example of delegation to youngsters encouraged to earn their keep? It will be interesting to see whether the same pattern is repeated in subsequent years).

(4) An arduous journey with straw

The wall and bank with traces of straw left by the badgers
The wall and bank with traces of straw left by the badgers

Received wisdom suggests that badgers prefer hay above all else for use as a bedding material, yet at the sett featured in 'Two badger cubs take in bedding material whilst the adults search for food' (3), previously, that was not wholly the case.

The sett is in a hedgerow at the top of a steep bank bordering a hollow-way in fairly open countryside. A relatively little used tarmac road - which over the years has sadly claimed a number of badger lives - runs through the hollow-way.

A wall about two and a half feet high borders the equally steep bank on the opposite side of the road.

Straw was available in a field at the top of this bank, followed a number of weeks later by newly cut hay in another field alongside the sett.

Yet even when the hay became available, some of the badgers preferred to negotiate the first steep bank, cross the road, clamber up the wall and then climb the second steep bank before making the reverse journey with bundles of straw.

Yes, badgers are certainly are idiosyncratic creatures.

Further information and a variety of fascinating badger videos

Badgers - a general introduction
Badger field signs - look out for evidence of badger presence in the countryside
Badger watching - a guide to watching badgers
Badger behaviour - an introduction to a series of badger behaviour videos, mostly shot in the New Forest, and lots more information about badgers
Badger's setts - situation, size, tunnelling and excavation (videos)
Emergence from the sett - times of emergence and factors influencing variation (videos)
Grooming and mutual grooming - badgers grooming themselves and each other (videos)
Scent marking - badgers scent marking their nearest and dearest, and also their territory (videos)
Badger bedding - essential comfort for a good day's sleep (videos)
Play fighting amongst the cubs - high jinks by the sett, but also preparation for later life (videos)
Badger fights / badgers fighting - potentially vicious affairs (videos)
Badgers and foxes together - an often uncomfortable relationship (videos)
Disturbance at badger setts - by people, cats, dogs and passing foxes (videos)
Other animals in the sett, and animal passers-by - shared living space, rabbits, mice, deer, ponies and more (videos)

References:
The Natural History of Badgers, Ernest Neal
Badgers: Ernest Neal and Chris Cheeseman
Darkness Is Light Enough: Chris Ferris
Out of the Darkness: Chris Ferris
Eileen Soper's Badgers
Mammals of Britain and Europe: David Macdonald and Priscilla Barrett


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Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley