Two badgers.
Badgers in coppice woodland, Kent © robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo
Badgers in coppice woodland, Kent © robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo

Badgers and Archaeological Sites

Badgers and other burrowing animals can sometimes cause significant damage to archaeological and other historic sites.

Badgers and their setts (underground tunnel systems) are protected by law under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. The Natural England/Defra webpage sets out:

  • What you must not do
  • Activities that can harm badgers
  • When you'll need a licence
  • When you usually won't need a licence; and
  • How to apply for a licence

Badgers are widespread and common in suitable habitats in Britain but scarce in some upland and wetland areas. They also have a history of persecution, and it is this, rather than their rarity on a national scale, that has led to their legal protection.

Badgers live in social groups, sometimes called clans. Females tend to stay with their natal group, whilst males are more likely to disperse after reaching maturity. Their setts are used by successive generations of badgers, sometimes for centuries.

Clans are territorial, and particularly in spring the animals dig latrine pits along the boundaries and on well-used paths to mark their territories.

Setts can be divided into four types depending on their size and importance to the group:

  • Main sett - The main sett is large, continuously occupied and used for breeding
  • Annex sett - The annex sett is smaller, usually occupied, and connected to a main sett by well-worn pathways
  • Subsidiary sett - The subsidiary sett is seasonally occupied and some distance from the main sett
  • Outliers - Outlier setts are only used sporadically and may have no obvious path connecting them with another sett

Typically a badger clan will have one main sett and additional smaller setts within its territory. Setts can usually be distinguished from tunnels of foxes or rabbits by their size and shape. Badger tunnels are at least 25 centimetres in diameter, often have an oval profile, and are wider than they are high. There are large spoil heaps, often with bedding material, outside active entrances. However other animals, including foxes, may use badger setts, sometimes while badgers are resident. In urban, upland, intensively farmed, or low-lying areas individual badger setts may be of high local importance.

Badgers are omnivorous, feeding on earthworms and grubs, digging holes to extract them from grasslands and lawns, insects, fruits, amphibians and small mammals, including hedgehogs.

Where the presence of a badger sett is causing damage to an archaeological site, or threatening to do so, the main licensing option considered is usually closure of the sett. This means excluding the badgers from the problem sett, whilst allowing them to remain in the general area. Badgers will usually have more than one sett in their territory.

The longer a sett has been established on a vulnerable site, and the more extensive it is, the more difficult it is likely to be to take mitigating action. In addition, significant damage to the site may already have done been done. The creation of new setts, or significant extension of existing ones, should be checked for routinely. If a sett poses a threat, advice should be sought from Natural England as soon as possible.

In some cases, for example where a large well-established sett is present, it may be impractical to deal with the whole sett. Such sites should be monitored for signs of new tunnelling and, whilst it may not be possible to prevent all damage, advice should be sought on limiting further damage.

Where damage to lawns and gardens is being caused by badger feeding activity a licence will not normally be appropriate. Feeding damage is usually caused when badgers forage for worms, grubs or nutritious roots and tubers. This often only occurs seasonally, but it can be unsightly and may create trip hazards. If persistent damage occurs, it may be possible to identify the food item the badgers are digging for and reduce its abundance. In some cases, badgers may be fenced out of vulnerable areas, provided this does not deprive the clan of a substantial proportion of their foraging territory. Serious damage in gardens involving setts will necessitate applying for a licence.

Badger latrines can be unsightly, and in public access areas may be perceived as a health risk. The risks from badger droppings are similar to dog and cat faeces. Like these animals, badger droppings can carry the parasitic worm Toxocara which can cause blindness in children. There is also a theoretical risk of tuberculosis, albeit very slight. If there is concern about a health risk, or latrines are considered intolerable because of their appearance or smell, dung should be shovelled up and removed, or covered over with soil. Appropriate safety equipment should be used if handling dung such as protective gloves, splash mask and coveralls. It may be possible to exclude badgers from the site if the area is not too extensive.

The Natural England/Defra licences set out what works can be done and when. The licences take into account animal welfare and their breeding season (November to June).