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Badgers - scent marking

Scent marking other badgers

To humans, badgers can seem to have some strange habits including regularly marking with scent, other members of the same social group. Or at least this might seem strange until it's realised that badgers, in common with many other mammals, rely heavily on their sense of smell, and scent signals to them are therefore incredibly important.

Also known as musking, scent marking is undertaken by all members of the badgers' social group, from quite small cubs (cubs brought up in captivity have been seen to scent mark from 9 weeks old) right the way up to the largest, dominant boar.

Badgers give off scent in a number of ways, including through their sweat, urine and faeces and from anal gland secretions; but when scent marking each other, pale-yellow fatty secretions are used, given off from their sub-caudal gland, a quite large pouch situated close to the base of the tail.

When first viewed, scent marking one's friends and relatives can appear to be a somewhat distasteful process - the musking animal raises its tail and backs onto or straddles the one to be marked, leaving a trace of secretion on its fur - but once accepted as a feature of badger life, it can be more appropriately seen as a mostly casual, almost affectionate act very much akin to tactile humans touching each other during conversation.

There is, though, a lot more to seemingly casual scent marking than meets the eye (or should that be the nose), for each badger has its own unique personal scent which, when mixed with the scent of others members of the social group - remember, they all set scent on each other - results in an equally unique composite that enables members of the group to quickly recognise each other by smell and, indeed, identify strangers in their midst.

But as can be seen in videos three and four, there's nothing casual about scent marking when used, primarily by the boar, as a prelude to mating, for then it clearly conveys its intended message.

(1) Mutual grooming and scent marking - 0.58 minutes

An adult badger, a relatively young animal, peers out of a sett entrance prompting a nearby larger badger - a sow - to come over. Affectionate chirruping is heard and there's a little bit of mutual grooming before the presumably subordinate animal is scent marked.

Disturbance, maybe something passing along the nearby path, prompts the larger of the two to dash over and investigate, and a sharp, distant, unexplained sound is heard. The more nervous subordinate animal backs away and disappears down the sett entrance.

Almost immediately, when it's realised there's no danger, both badgers return and calmly go about their business. Blackbird and song thrush provide a relaxed backdrop to proceedings.

(2) A family affair - 0.58 minutes

A sow grooms two of her three cubs as they struggle to get past her on emergence from the sett. She twice unceremoniously scent marks one on the head, whilst the other cub sets scent on her flank. Badger chirruping sounds are heard throughout.

(3) Bad weather is no obstacle to romance - 1.01 minutes

On a wild, windy late-February hillside beside an exposed sett entrance, two badgers vigorously, excitably scent mark each other as what is surely a prelude to mating.

(4) Bum to bum - that's a fine way to say hello - 0.20 minutes

A badger dashes into view along a well-used 'badger path', encounters another and both raise their tails to expose their sub-caudal glands. Each scent marks the other before both disappear from sight into the area of the sett.

(5) A casual approach to scent marking - 2.06 minutes

Scent marking need not be a hugely ceremonial process. Indeed, it can be quite relaxed, even casual, something undertaken almost in passing. These two badgers are searching for food although one intermittently grooms and scratches itself, yet still they have the time and inclination to scent mark each other and the ground.

(6) Courtship: two's company, three is tolerated - 9 minutes

A dominant boar amorously, persistently pursues a sow. He repeatedly scent marks her, occasionally sniffs her nether regions and intermittently straddles her; whilst she repeatedly raises her tail into an almost vertical position, signalling a willingness to participate. She occasionally scent marks him, but at times lies / sits down as though saying 'steady on, I'm not quite ready yet'.

A third, subordinate badger - maybe another boar - shows interest in the goings on and occasionally, somewhat bravely, sets its own scent on the sow which she occasionally reciprocates. The subordinate animal is, however, on one occasion nipped by the dominant boar and eventually, perhaps wisely, is satisfied to only watch on.

(At the start, when the third animal first appears, the boar approaches it and sets scent on the ground, maybe leaving a marker to emphasise his dominance).

Courtship squeals and chirruping add considerable audible flavour to the proceedings.

Setting scent along the way

Badgers do not only use the contents of their sub-caudal gland to scent mark other badgers, for when going about their business, they also intermittently, briefly squat down and set scent on the ground and also on prominent features such as tussocks, stones and tree stumps. Scent messages are thus left for future reference, messages that all badgers within the social group will recognise along regularly used badger paths that may be followed by generations of these animals.

Such badger highways become semi-permanent features of the landscape so-much-so that if a trail leads through long grass and the grass is cut right back, the badgers will still follow its route' but perhaps more surprisingly, the paths can become so impregnated with scent that even when ploughed up, the scent remains and the route of the old path is frequently re-established along the same course.

And not only will members of the social group recognise the messages, but so will interlopers from elsewhere that will quickly realise that a potentially aggressive group of badgers are already in residence.

Similarly, the strategic placement of latrines alongside main paths and at home range perimeters is part of the messaging system left for the benefit of other badgers, a system that is especially effective when anal gland secretions are added to the mix and deposits from the sub-caudal gland are placed nearby.

(Boars, somewhat predictably, have the strongest urge to mark out their lands and consequently visit the perimeter dung pits more frequently than other members of the group, particularly from January to May which is the main mating period).

(7) Setting scent - 0.21 minutes

A badger emerges from its sett seemingly unconcerned by the steadily falling rain, goes out into an adjacent field and briefly squats as it scent marks the edge of a clump of newly cut hay that was part of a cargo of badger bedding previously dropped before the sett was reached.

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