A Winters Tale – The story of the Badger

So quiet and peaceful, Tranquil and blissful, There’s a kind of magic in the air

What a truly magnificent view,  A breathtaking scene.

This is the first in a series of blogs about the iconic mammal, Meles Meles – better know to most as the Badger. So, lets take a look at what Badgers are doing in the British mid-winter.

A badger’s home is called a sett. These are often found in woodlands, field edges and in larger gardens. In urban areas, badger setts can be found in parks and green spaces. 

Badgers live in social groups of 5 to 6 adults. There is usually a higher number of females in the group, it’s believed this helps to counteract the higher mortality of males through road kill, and fights. Only some of the females, known as sows, will breed each year. These are the older or more dominant sows, whilst the smaller sows, often with visible scars on their rumps from fighting for dominance within the group will be subordinate to the breeding sows. If a subordinate sow does breed, the dominant female will often kill the cubs and leave them outside the sett.

In winter, badgers spend more time underground in their setts. They don’t hibernate, but they will lie low and sleep for extended periods of time. They do emerge to forage in mild weather, generally being more active further south and if they are regularly fed by people.

Although breeding takes place in early spring and again in late summer, badgers, like many mammals, use delayed implantation. The mating occurs either inside, or close to the entrance of the sett. Interestingly, a female badger may mate with more than one male and have a litter of mixed parentage. This helps with the genetic diversity within the group and can lead the variations in colour. Sows can ovulate a second time and mate again, whilst already carrying blastocysts from an earlier mating, and still start the pregnancy at the same time to produce a single litter of cubs. This remarkable ability is called superfetation.

Blastocysts, the fertilised eggs, are implanted on or around the Winter Solstice, on 21st December every year. Each blastocyst, a tiny ball of cells that becomes an embryo, takes around 7 to 8 weeks to develop into a badger cub.

Despite female badgers eating less and living off fat reserves, winter is when they give birth to their cubs, that are born helpless and blind. New-born cubs are thin and about 12cm (5.5 inches long) with a light covering of silvery grey fur and weigh about 75-130g. This fur is a little darker on the legs, and sometimes there are faint stripes on the face. Sows will generally have two or three cubs, collectively known as a litter. The newborn cubs will stay underground with their mothers and family groups for around 8 to 10 weeks. If is often possible to tell whether a sow has cubs, as her teats are prominent between February and the end of May.

The cubs have a silky, grey fur with a fluffy look. Both adults and cubs will remain extremely cautious and not venture far from the set  The aim is for the cubs to start venturing above ground in April or early May, when invertebrate food is plentiful and they have as much time as possible to put on fat to prepare them for their own first winter.

Most cubs are born in a specially modified nursing chamber within the sett, which is usually close to the entrance. This will have good airflow and a dense pile of bedding that is moved in by the pregnant sow prior to giving birth. Sometimes, a subordinate sow may make her nursing chamber in a smaller sett, or even straw, hay or bracken but always away from the attention of a more dominant pregnant sow.

The cubs are born with their eyes closed. They develop their first teeth at about four weeks, and their eyes open at around five weeks old. Even then, they can’t see well for a few more weeks, 

Badger cubs show hints of their two dark eye-stripes in their otherwise thin, silky fur, but by the time they leave the sett they have developed full adult coloration. They also behave exactly as adults do when threatened, facing the enemy with lowered heads and fluffed-up coats. This displays remarkable confidence for their size, suggesting that the stripes may be a warning.

When the cubs are around 6 to 7 weeks old, they will leave the nursery chamber and begin exploring within the sett. Around 8 weeks old, they may come up to the sett entrances. Watching a sett in late April and early May is the best time to see the cubs’ first foray above ground.

Keep an eye on the entrance because they will probably remain in it, or nearby, as well as staying extremely close to their mother. She will herd them below ground at the first sign of danger, and even drag a cub to safety by the scruff of its neck.

Sows will suckle their young for about 12 weeks, normally until around the end of May in the UK, after this, the weaning starts, and the sow will allow the cubs to suckle less, forcing the cubs to start finding their own food.

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