British badger guide: natural habitat, diet and how to spot

Following news that the government has relaxed future badger culling restrictions in the UK, the badger is back in the headlines. Learn more about Britain's largest land carnivore – and why they are are so controversial – with our badger guide, including where they live, diet and how to see them in the wild.

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Badgers, with their black and white snouts, are one of our most easily recognisable mammals. They are also familiar to us from children’s books such as Wind in the Willows and Beatrix Potter. In recent decades badgers have faced a great deal of controversy, being implicated in the transmission of bTB (bovine tuberculosis) to cattle, which has led to cull of the animals in parts of the UK.

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But how much do we really know about this distinctive and widespread countryside character?

Learn more about this British wild mammal with our guide to badgers, including where they live, diet and how to see in the wild. 

European badger (Meles meles) foraging in the undergrowth / scrub at forest edge. (Photo by: Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
European badger (Meles meles) foraging in the undergrowth at a woodland edge at dawn. (Photo by: Philippe Clement/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Where do badgers live?

Badgers are most at home in woodlands or large hedgerows with access to water and open meadow. They are common on farmland but also roam into towns, parks and large gardens. They dig extensive burrows, often in hedge banks, with sleeping chambers called ‘setts’. A single sett provides a home for a clan of badgers – an extended family of 3-14 individuals. A male badger is called a boar and a female a sow.

UNSPECIFIED - MARCH 23: Badgers on a den (Meles meles) (Photo by De Agostini via Getty Images/De Agostini via Getty Images)
A badger sett may have multiple sleeping chambers deep under tree roots. Badger setts may be decades, even hundreds of years old (Photo by De Agostini via Getty Images/De Agostini via Getty Images)


What do badgers eat?

Badgers are omnivores, meaning that they have a wide ranging diet that includes insects and other creatures as well as vegetation and fruit. Earthworms, which they dig up in grassland at night when the worms are usually closer to the surface, tend to make up the majority of a badgers diet and a single animal can eat 200 worms or more in a night. In autumn, hedgerow fruits and nuts including blackberries, plums and apples, tend to dominate. A badger will eat birds eggs and chicks if it finds a nest and its powerful front paws can tackle a hedgehog with ease. It will also eat mice and rabbits if given the chance.

Curious bold European badger (Meles meles) exploring garden at night, Somerset, UK. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A bold badger explores a Somerset garden at night. Badgers often forage for grubs and worms in lawns and flowers pots, to the dismay of gardeners. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Are badgers to blame for the decline of hedgehogs?

Because badgers eat hedgehogs and are their main natural predator in the UK, some people blame badgers for the hedgehog decline in Britain. However, hedgehog expert Hugh Warwick argues that other factors are to blame.

Hedgehog (Photo by: Maren Winter via Getty Images)
Hedgehog (Photo by: Maren Winter via Getty Images)

Essential badger facts

  • Family: Mustelid (like stoats, weasels, otters and pine martens)
  • Size: Similar to a cat but lighter, weighing around 10-12kg. Large males can reach to 90cm in length.
  • Colour Distinctive black and white striped head; silver grey/black fur.
  • Territory: Around 1.5km² but can occur at greater densities if food sources are good.
  • Diet: Omnivorous, with a taste for earthworms, rodents, rabbits, birds and berries and other fruit.


When is the best time to spot badgers?

Badgers are mostly active at night when they feel safe but also when their prey is active. So to see a badger, settle quietly near a sett at dusk or dawn, when the badgers are emerging or returning to their daytime hideaways.

How long have badgers lived in Britain?

Paleontological evidence shows that badgers have been the British Isles for at least 250,000 years.

How many badgers are there in the UK?

A survey published by DEFRA found 72,000 social groups of badgers in England and Wales. Other estimates suggest the population may be 250,000-400,000 individuals in the whole of the UK. The UK has a quarter of the global population of the species.

Badger, Meles meles, in urban garden Tunbridge Wells, Kent. (Photo by: David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
While badgers are typically creatures of woods and farmland, they are quite common in our towns and cities – such as here in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. (Photo by: David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Does the badger have any natural predators?

Not in the UK though in continental Europe bears and wolves may eat badger cubs. Some 45,000-50,000 badgers are killed on Britain’s roads every year.

European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) walking through a hole in a garden fence

Why are badgers being culled?

The government has licensed the culling of badgers to test whether the free-shooting of badgers is an effective culling method in preventing the spread of bovine tuberculosis (Btb) in cattle. A badger culling trial between 1998-2005 found that culling badgers within a controlled area could reduce the incidences of Btb in cattle.

How are the badgers culled?

In the scientific trial, 11,000 badgers were trapped in cages and killed over a seven year period in specific locations. To save money, the current badger cull relies on marksmen shooting the animals.

Does everyone agree that culling badgers will reduce Bovine tuberculosis (TB)?

No. Many of the scientists involved in the badger culling trial have expressed concern that shooting badgers rather than trapping is not effective and is inhumane. The Government and many farmers claim that culling is having a positive effect on the spread of TB but there are no scientific studies to back this up.

WESTMINSTER, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 12: Make Badger Culling & Hunting History Protest March on August 12, 2017 in Westminster, England. Hundreds of Animal rights activists call on the Conservative government to bring an immediate end to the cruel, costly and ineffective badger cull policy and to strengthen rather than seek to repeal the Hunting Act, and to raise public awareness of the barbarity of fox-cub hunting. PHOTOGRAPH BY David Nash / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com - New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com - New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftimages.com (Photo credit should read David Nash / Barcroft Media via Getty Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Anti-cull protesters campaign outside parliament in Westminster in August 2017  (Photo credit David Nash / Barcroft Media via Getty Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

What about badger vaccination?

As of March 2020, the UK Government signalled that it would start to phase out badger culling in the UK and replace it with a vaccination program. 

Environment Secretary George Eustice claimed: “The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease as demonstrated by recent academic research and past studies.

“But no-one wants to continue the cull of this protected species indefinitely so, once the weight of disease in wildlife has been addressed, we will accelerate other elements of our strategy, including improved diagnostics and cattle vaccination.”

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PEAK DISTRICT, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 03: A rare Erythristic Badger cub is vaccinated on September 03, 2019 in the Peak District, England. The 'Derbyshire Badger Vaccination Project', run and funded by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and the National Trust, aims to vaccinate badgers at several key sites in the Peak District National Park, against Bovine tuberculosis (bTB), a disease that is thought, though not proven to be spread between Badgers and cattle. The infectious disease has pitted wildlife advocates and some members of the farming community against each other, with the method of containing the disease, vaccinating or culling, the source of the conflict. Despite around £300,000 GBP worth of government funding from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) towards the vaccination project, the government is still considering applications to cull animals in the Derbyshire area this Autumn, an incredibly emotive and controversial method that is both expensive and its effectiveness, according to scientific evidence, not proven. TB’s effect on the farming community has unquestionably been devastating however, with around 10,000 cattle being slaughtered in 2018, at a cost to farmers and taxpayers of about £120 million GBP a year and is thought to be on the increase. Finding a solution to the problem is one of the countryside’s biggest challenges and the most contentious wildlife management debates currently in the UK. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A badger cub is vaccinated in the Peak District, England. The ‘Derbyshire Badger Vaccination Project’, run and funded by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and the National Trust, aims to vaccinate badgers at several key sites in the Peak District National Park, against Bovine tuberculosis (bTB). (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

How is the badger portrayed in popular culture?

In literature, the badger is both hero and villain. For example, in Beatrix Potter’s extensive works, the figure of Tommy Brock is an enemy of Peter Rabbit. However, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, Badger is a wise and respected leader of the woodland community.