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Pony near Hampton Ridge
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Badger setts

Different setts for different purposes

Badger setts, the tunnel systems within which badgers live, come in a number of guises.

Main setts are the most important, permanently occupied setts within a social group's territory. They are also likely to be the largest.

Outlying setts - of which there may be a number - are small setts that typically comprise one or two entrances, a very limited tunnel system and a single enlarged chamber. They are used infrequently as a temporary refuge, often by a single badger.

And then in-between these two extremes are setts of intermediate size that may, for example, provide a semi-permanent home for subordinate animals that have either been evicted from the main sett or find living apart from their dominant relatives much more to their liking.

Badger setts - situation

Badger setts, certainly the main setts, are often situated towards the top of well-drained hillsides, although level ground is also used. Broad-leaved woodland edge locations are favoured but away from woodland, so are well-grown hedgerows - both provide cover and a degree of shelter from the elements. Farmland, grassland or other open land is likely to be available nearby for use as feeding areas.

(1) Substantial re-excavation - 3.52 minutes

A sow re-excavates a sett entrance that was badly disturbed by her cubs 'play fighting' on the previous night. The guilty parties, the cubs, look on, intermittently helping and in equal measure, hindering her repair attempts.

The badger's fore limbs and claws are used to loosen the earth and then move it backwards between the hind limbs. Sometimes, having accumulated a pile of earth behind their body, badgers use their rear ends to push the earth backwards, but not on this occasion.

This video well-illustrates the strength of these animals and how superbly equipped they are for tunnelling and excavation. It also illustrates how furrows are formed along the length of the spoil heap.

(2) Running repairs - 1.31 minutes

The badger here seems to be approaching tunnel excavation with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Badger sett - features

Main setts are frequently betrayed by enormous heaps of relatively fresh spoil outside the currently used entrances, each heap of spoil often featuring a prominent furrow along its length formed as digging badgers move the latest tranche of material to the far end of the heap. Traces of bedding left above ground will often be visible and so will strands of old bedding material within the spoil.

Badger tunnel entrances are quite large, as they have to be to accommodate the passage of these very bulky animals. Minimum diameter is considered to be 250mm whilst the maximum is best expressed as 'absolutely enormous', and as badgers, unless standing upright, are fairly squat creatures, typically wider than they are tall, so the tunnels are normally wider than they are high - like a dome-roofed 'D' lying on its side.

The average main sett is said to have three to ten entrances, whilst some long-established, maybe centuries-old, setts have been recorded with as many as eighty entrances. Most, if not all, entrances lead to a series of interconnected tunnels that in some cases have been found to be on at least four levels and go down a minimum of 4 metres. Conversely, many setts are single storied with tunnels that go down no more than one metre.

However, the number of badgers present in a sett isn't necessarily indicated by the number of tunnel entrances, nor does the number of entrances denote the extent of the underground elements of the sett. Highlighting the latter point, excavation showed that one main sett with two entrances had tunnels 102 metres long, whilst a sett with 80 entrances was associated with 354 metres of tunnels.

Larger setts contain a number of chambers off the main tunnel system, chambers that sometimes contain bedding material and are frequently large enough for two adult badgers to sleep and rest together, and also large enough to accommodate a breeding sow and small cubs. Chambers, too, may be used as indoor toilets, presumably by badgers too idle or ill to venture above ground to defecate, or used in winter when it's really too cold or wet to venture outdoors.

(Excavation showed, for example, that one sett had 38 tunnel entrances, a tunnel length of 360 metres and 78 chambers within it, 15 of which contained bedding and 7 of which contained dung).

(3) Tunnelling can be a dirty job - 0.39 minutes

A badger in swirling mist, filthy dirty after a busy session tunnelling.

(4) Freshly excavated - 0.30 minutes

A huge sandy, freshly excavated badgers' sett spoil heap attracts the attention of a fox on the prowl at dawn.

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)
Badger cull - badgers, bovine Tuberculosis (bTB), and the badger cull

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