The park where badgers rule

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Supported by

Heritage Lottery Fund Cymru

NatureSpy are grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this project.

 

 

The park where badgers rule

By Hannah Henshaw

One species we always make sure to try and capture are badgers.

They are definitely a camera trap favourite at NatureSpy and we never get tired of viewing their adorable bumbling running, listening to their sniffing and snuffling or even watching how they move our camera traps out of position!

If badgers are in an area, spotting good camera placement opportunities can be relatively easy – they give us plenty of clues; setts, latrines, tracks, dug up patches and badger-made paths.

The tricky part comes when choosing a path for the camera to face and hoping that’s the one they use!

Badger behaviour camera trap

A badger adopts sentry duty – protecting the group’s territory

We should note here that we are always very careful around badger setts. We don’t go on to setts and keep a good distance from any potential sett entrances and exits. Disturbing a sett can really upset a badger’s activity pattern and is illegal. If they are feeling unsettled because of sett disturbance they can often be too nervous to leave and will wait longer in the evenings to emerge, losing valuable foraging time.

Looking at badger activity patterns, habitats and group sizes is something we are keen to study via our iWild North Wales project and so when we arrived at Gathering Grounds in Flintshire for the second iWild event we were excited by the number of obvious badger paths, setts, and dug-up bluebells! One of our iWild volunteers, Helen, knew the area well and had spotted badgers in the evenings so we were pretty confident of getting some good badger footage.

What we didn’t bank on was the amount of footage this site would generate. Probably one of our smallest iWild event sites – we arrived three weeks later to collect our camera traps to find almost four SD cards completely full… of badgers.

We were rewarded with our favourite badger performances; foraging, scent marking, bumbling – but new behaviours our camera traps had yet to witness were also captured, giving us a great opportunity to look in more detail at some of the more complex elements of badger behaviour…

Group size

Badgers usually form social groups which can contain between 2 – 25 individuals with an average of 4-10. This number fluctuates greatly and depends on the size of the territory the group of badgers resides in. Territory size will be determined by a number of factors such as proximity to other badger territories, favourable habitat and food resources, but typically ranges from 30ha-150ha.

Characteristically, groups will have more females than males as the latter have a higher mortality rate caused by male-male fighting and road fatalities – as they are more likely to move between territories finding females.

Estimating group sizes in a given area is difficult unless you know the group particularly well and see them regularly. Looking out for individual markings such as differences in facial stripes or scars from injuries is one of the easiest ways to tell badgers apart.

At Gathering Grounds one badger we caught regularly sadly looked to have one eye badly injured or missing; you can spot this easily during night time footage as just one eye is giving off any eye shine. Therefore we can record this as 1 individual.

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Another way to estimate group size is by simply counting how many badgers appear together at any one time. We regularly get two badgers together on our camera traps, usually foraging and moving to and from setts together. This we can then count as 2 individuals. However, unless they each have distinctive markings, we can’t be sure if they are different animals or the same two if we capture them on camera night after night. This makes estimating population sizes in larger areas very difficult.

A first surprise came at Gathering Grounds when for the first time we captured 4 badgers on camera together simultaneously. You can see that all 4 show full eye shine meaning that our badger with the one eye is a different individual and takes the group size count up to 5.

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Gathering grounds is just 3.61ha and surrounded by housing estates on all sides – which could potentially mean that the group size here is just 5.

Mating

You may have noticed on the video that 2 of the 4 badgers were mating… This is something we’ve not caught on our camera traps before.

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It was down to a lot of luck and between the combination of high badger activity in the area and our cameras going out during mating season – which is usually from February to May.
There are exceptions to this rule as badgers can mate all year round, but they still usually have just one litter a year, made possible due the reproductive technique delayed implantation (whereby an embryo can remain ‘dormant’ for long periods of time).

This tactic has a two-fold purpose: one; it maximises a females chances of producing a litter, and two; it means that young are born at the same time and timed to do so to take advantage of peak foraging seasons.

Young will be born anytime between February and April and after approximately 8 weeks of suckling in their setts, they will be ready to emerge around April-May, in warmer climates and with plenty of food.
‘Outsider’ males from other nearby territories do visit other setts, particular during mating seasons to strengthen their own chances of siring offspring resulting in an added advantage of ensuring a more genetically diverse social group.

Socialising

Socialising is a way of strengthening bonds and learning skills such as foraging and fighting. At Gathering Grounds we caught a glimpse of some social behaviour as this foraging badger seems to be have been taken by surprised by a playful group mate!

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Playful behaviours can be differentiated from fighting as battles between male badgers are typically highly aggressive and focused on trying to bite the rump.

Being closely related within groups, badgers are often very sociable within their little clans. Forming these alliances is important for them for many reasons but primarily they need each other to help defend territories – something they would find difficult to do on their own. Socialising with each other is an important element to help cement the group structure and thus ensure territories will be well guarded.

There are also studies which suggest that some badger groups display alloparental behaviour – whereby individuals will help to bring up cubs belonging to other females in the group, which has been seen in the form of ‘babysitting’ and grooming cubs .

This again demonstrates a highly intricate group dynamic of which we still have plenty to learn and we hope our camera traps may help to find out more…

The next event will see the camera traps collected from Nant Mill – and we need your help! All events are completely free and we hope to see you there.