Looking for setts in an area is really important with regards to protecting them and the badgers within.
Setts are targeted by various people all throughout the year in different areas. From ‘being in the way’ when it comes to housing and other developments to being a good place to escape for a hunted fox (and therefore inconvenient for the hunters), they don’t seem to be safe anywhere in the country!
Both legal and illegal interference happens with setts – sometimes they are legally ‘evicted’ so that development can happen (where a type of door is placed at sett entrances which lets badgers out but won’t let them back in) and other times they are dug-out or setts are blocked up or disturbed so much that the badgers leave.
Hunts block badger setts and other areas like drains and fox earths to stop foxes from escaping into them during a hunt – badger setts can be very complex and difficult to dig a fox out of (though they will also do so) and the hunt do prefer long chases to constant stopping and starting. See Three Counties Hunt Sabs’ articles on hunt interference with setts and terrierwork for more information.
Farmers, gamekeepers and other landowners and managers have also been known to set snares for badgers – see Three Counties Sabs’ pages on traps and snares for more info on these. Badgers are also gassed in their setts and on a few occasions we’ve found setts blocked up but with diesel first poured into them.
And then, of course, there are the culls. And knowing where setts are is vital to protecting badgers. In the second year of the cull we published almost-daily sett- surveying tips online for others to find and use (this is all public information anyway and those that wish to harm badgers will know much of it as it is).
On this page we’ll collate some of the information for ease of finding. More information will likely be added over time, so watch this space!
Badger prints (from ‘Mammals of Britain’ by M. J. Lawrence and R. W. Brown)
Sett-surveying can be done thoroughly in areas or more generally, based on how much time you have and access in the area. Some people have surveyed as best they can from public land alone, using knowledge of areas and tracks, etc. locally to best work out where setts may be located, but to have the best idea of an area (and to check setts for signs of tampering, etc.) we’ll end up trespassing quite a bit.
In some areas we’ve had more time and more people and resources, so have been able to survey areas fairly thoroughly – walking the edges of fields, scouring woodlands and so on. In others, we’ve had to get a more general feel for the area in a shorter space of time (or a large area with fewer people) and will then prioritise areas to check based on likelihood of finding setts, find good vantage points from which to look around (early spring is a good time for this as foliage hasn’t yet shot up, fields won’t be full of tall crops and badgers will have started to be more active again). From a vantage point you can often see across several fields around you, looking for signs of digging and spoil heaps (the soil piles outside of sett entrances) as well as seeing large, open or flat areas or thin hedgerows where there are no signs of setts being present and so on, saving you walking around the perimeter of every field.
Marshy land and flood plains are usually avoided, though we have found setts in these areas too… sometimes they only seem active at certain times of the year, year after year, so badgers must have another area that they live in the rest of the time. They’re very strong diggers so can excavate huge amounts of soil and rubble from the hardest-to-dig places when needed!
A good ‘badger area’ is likely to have some ground which isn’t flat, a water source nearby and usually some more open land in the vicinity in which badgers can roam and forage. There will often be signs in open areas of badger activity, such as runs (badger footpaths) though these can be made by other animals, badger hair caught on the bottom of fences, dung pits dug at the edges of fields / edges of a territory and snuffle-holes where badgers have dug for worms and other food (though other animals also dig holes like this… and bait points made by cull contractors can look similar too). Finding badger runs and following them can often lead to setts (though sometimes they fade out or you realise you’ve followed them away from a sett towards a water source for example). If you find hair caught on bramble or fences, check to see if it is badger – they will be grey or black, coarse, with a squarish cross-section.
If there are maize fields nearby, there may be signs of chewed up corn cobs or flattened maize at the edges of fields where badgers have pulled them down or rolled on to them. There may be clear patches in the vicinity of setts where they congregate to play and groom and possibly tree stumps or fallen trees which are climbed and played on, chewed and scratched.
The holes of a badger sett have a characteristic shape, sometimes referred to as a ‘sideways D’. The key feature is that they are broader than they are tall. Rabbit holes are smaller and more oval, fox earths tend to be taller (though foxes are lazy diggers and will take over unused setts, drains, log-piles and so on too). Most often you’ll find setts dug into banks or quarries, but we have found entrances in relatively flat fields before, so they do get around! Entrances may be dug under fallen trees or within roots (or even in hollow tree trunks). There may only be a couple of holes, but sometimes you’ll find entrances all over a bank or hillside. Setts are very extensive underground and a huge amount of soil, rubble, etc. will be excavated to create these tunnels, hence why many setts have huge ‘spoil heaps’ outside of them – badgers are compulsive diggers so will be digging quite regularly all year round (though much of it will be done before cubs are born in spring).
Especially when preparing for cubs, you may find old bedding that has been dragged out during the clearance… straw, hay, dried grass and bracken.
Active entrances will show signs of movement, usually fresh digging or paw prints – the best evidence you can get that a sett is inhabited. Claw marks, especially on wet soil or steep areas may also be present. While there may be some leaf fall, active entrances are likely to look more clear – at least having a clear hole to easily get in and out of.
Looking around the immediate area of the sett there may be a main latrine site nearby, like the territorial dung pits, but more concentrated in an area. Sometimes we find ‘latrine trees’ – fallen trees or a small cluster of trees around which the majority of latrines have been situated. Once we found a massive sett entrance with a huge, very full, latrine right outside of it… obviously a very fat and very lazy badger – we keep a special eye on that area when the local hunt is out!
Badger dung is usually a dark greyish or brownish green (especially is they’ve been feeding on worms). Peanuts may be obvious if they’ve been eating from cull bait points. Certain plants that badgers eat may also be obvious in the dung, including maize!