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New Forest badgers - an introduction

A badger and cub (in the foreground) exploring the landscape around their underground home
A badger and cub (in the foreground)
exploring the landscape around
their underground home

Badgers have roamed the New Forest since time immemorial, once sharing the woods with wolf, bear and wild boar. Indeed, badgers are often considered to have given Brockenhurst its name, and almost certainly did to Brockis Hill, near Minstead; and Brock Hill on the Rhinefield Ornamental Drive.

Badgers are absolutely unmistakable creatures. Conspicuously black and white about the head, badgers are of medium sized - 1 metre (3 feet), or so, long; very sturdy; and very low to the ground. The strikingly marked face shows clearly in the half-light, but the otherwise grey coat blends well with woodland shadows.

Badger guard hairs are very coarse – they were once used to make shaving brushes – and the tail is short. Front feet and claws are incredibly strong, evolved for digging out tunnel system homes. Large badger setts can contain more than 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) of tunnel constructed by countless generations of badgers, and have more than 30 entrances spread over a considerable area.

Unlike New Forest foxes, live badgers are rarely seen in daylight, or even at dusk away from the sett, preferring to stay indoors during the day, and close to home immediately after emergence when they groom, play, gather bedding to be pulled backwards down into a tunnel entrance, or simply potter about.

It seems, too, that badgers avoid paths used by humans, preferring their own well-trodden, narrow tracks through the woods, although they willingly come to garden feeding stations where they treat householders to prolonged views.

Most live badger sightings, though, are reserved for those prepared to sit quietly and wait by a sett for an appearance of these often mysterious creatures.

Steve Backshall on the Badger Cull -
a common sense view on an emotive subject
And here is a September 2016 interview about the
Badger Cull, featuring Chris Packham and Brian May
(it also contains information about
helping out on badger patrols)
Badger-march-poster

Badgers are sociable animals within their own family group, which itself might be spread about clusters of main and outlying setts. They even sometimes visit the relatives – individuals can disappear from home for days at a time, only to turn up at another sett nearby. Territorial aggression between badger groups is marked, however, as animals protect the food and other resources within their own home range.
 
Fastidiously clean animals, badgers sometimes groom alone soon after emerging from the sett, but families may often groom communally, two or more animals rolling on their backs or sitting on their haunches, scratching, licking, nibbling one another’s coats, before eventually going off to hunt.

A badger grooming soon after emergence from the sett
A badger grooming soon after
emergence from the sett
A scratch followed by a gentle nibble starts proceedings
A scratch followed by a gentle
nibble starts proceedings
Modesty is soon forgotten in the interests of cleaning those hard to reach places
Modesty is soon forgotten in the interests
of cleaning those hard to reach places
And to finish, lets not forget a good old scratch of the chin
And to finish, lets not forget
a good old scratch of the chin

Great care, too, is taken with toilet arrangements. Not for them the messy deposit of dung in any old place, for badgers use latrines. These shallow, specially dug pits are spread around the edges of the sett and located at strategic intervals along territorial boundaries where they serve to warn off intruders from other family groups.

Badgers are omnivorous feeders that will eat just about anything edible. Blackberries, grasses, invertebrates and, when available, birds’ eggs are all favourites. But they like nothing more than a hearty meal of earthworms. The typically acid New Forest soils, though, support relatively few of these spaghetti-like morsels, so for many badgers, particularly when the ground is dry, food is often relatively hard to find.

A badger on the prowl well before darkness falls
A badger on the prowl well before
darkness falls

New Forest badgers respond to their modest diet in a number of ways, or rather nature forces their response. Here, they are relatively widespread, but family groups tend to be quite small and the number of births each year fewer than elsewhere.

Perhaps surprisingly, foxes and badgers will often cohabit, or so it seems, raising families at opposite ends of the same tunnel system, with rabbits in residence, too, forming a sort of on-site larder. Fox and badger treat each other with respect, however, but in the event of conflict, the badger is likely to prevail.

Mating takes place throughout the year, but a system of delayed implantation results in consistent late-winter births, usually from the last weeks of January through to early-March. First emergence of the cubs above ground – a real treat for the watcher – is often in April or early May.

New Forest badger setts are often located on a well-drained hillside, at the edge of broad-leaved woodland for cover, and with heath or farmland nearby for use as a feeding area. Active setts are usually betrayed by enormous spoil heaps around a limited number of active entrances, by fresh latrines, and traces of bedding left above ground.

A badger drags bedding back towards the sett whilst nearby, a cub searches for foodstuffs amongst the fallen leaves
A badger drags bedding back towards
the sett whilst nearby, a cub searches for
foodstuffs amongst the fallen leaves

But unlike their farmland cousins, New Forest badgers often lack access to what presumably are fairly comfortable bedding materials, such as straw, hay and grasses, and must make do with dry leaves and bracken.

Collection of bedding, to human observers at least, entails a somewhat comical-looking process - the badger uses its front legs and paws to gather the material together before tucking a transportable bundle under its chin, and then shuffling backwards towards, and eventually down, a sett entrance that gives access to the sleeping chamber within the tunnel system.

New bedding material dropped along the way and at the sett entrance is usually ignored, whilst old material ejected from the sett during regular 'spring cleans' is left where it falls.

Numerous trips are usually undertaken before sufficient material has been gathered to freshen up the bed, and then the badger can go about its other nightly duties.

In fact, on the whole, the New Forest environment ensures that badgers have quite a tough time.

Find out more about New Forest badgers

Badger watching - including a fascinating video shot in the New Forest

References:
The Natural History of Badgers, Ernest Neal
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA): http://www.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-countryside/vertebrates/badger.htm

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Badgers feeding on peanut butter placed on a fence
Badgers are fast learners and skilled climbers -
these three quickly discovered peanut butter
placed on fence posts adjacent to their sett
and had little difficulty reaching the treat
New Forest ponies
New Forest ponies in the road
New Forest ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep and donkeys are a popular part of the New Forest scene, but in 2015, 55 were killed on the roads.
Always take care when driving
New Forest seasonal highlights
July
Silver-washed fritillary butterflies brighten many woodland rides.
Bird song subsides as the annual moult begins, old worn feathers are cast off and new replacements grown.
Wild gladiolus plants bloom. (In the UK, this species is found only in the New Forest).
Dragonflies and Damselflies take to the wing in ever increasing numbers.

August
Heather blossom produces huge swathes of heathland colour, adding to the pinks and purples of earlier flowering cross-leaved heath and bell heather.
Fallow, red and sika deer antlers, when fully grown, are cleaned of velvet in preparation for the autumn rut.
New Forest pony drifts - the annual round-ups begin.
Marsh gentian blooms add splashes of blue to some of the wetter heathlands.
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley