What you need to know about badger surveys

Badgers (Meles meles).

Badgers live throughout the UK and are particularly common in the south of England. Their numbers are estimated at being between 250,000 and 400,000. Badgers are social animals and spend most of their lives in underground tunnels called setts, which they dig using strong claws. Nocturnal creatures, badgers are less active in the winter months and while they don’t hibernate, they live off fat reserves built up over the summer and autumn. Badgers are members of the Mustelidae family whose members also include otters, weasels and wolverines.

The law relating to badgers and badger setts

Protected species in England and Wales are safeguarded by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. Badgers are also included within schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as well as being specifically covered by the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. Any development work which may disturb badgers or affect their habitat, therefore, requires appropriate mitigation in a report to the local planning authority explaining how damage could be minimised and any adverse effect on the habitat compensated for. The lack of a credible plan may well result in a planning application being refused.

The Protection of Badgers Act makes it illegal to:

  • Wilfully kill, injure or cruelly ill treat a badger.
  • Possess a dead badger or part of a badger.
  • Damage, destroy, obstruct access to, or disturb a badger sett.

A maximum fine of £5,000 could be handed out to anyone found guilty of these offences and a six-month prison sentence is possible. Updates to the law surrounding badgers may also come from regulators and organisations including Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management.

A badger emerging from the entrance hole to a sett.

Badger surveys

There are two types of badger surveys: the phase 1 or walkover survey, and the phase 2 survey. Depending on the project and findings from the phase 1 and phase 2 surveys, further surveys may be required such as a badger bait marking survey. Badger surveys must be conducted by trained, qualified and licenced ecological surveyors.

Phase 1 Walkover Badger Survey

This survey, which may also be called a scoping survey, can be carried out at any time of year in daylight hours, but the optimal times are from February to April and September to the end of November when badgers are active, but vegetation growth is not too vigorous to hamper the survey. An ecologist will walk the site, looking for signs of badger activity, for instance, active setts, entrance holes, foraging pits, well worn paths and tracks, and paw prints; other signs include a spoil heap, dung pits, badger’s droppings, snuffle holes, scratch marks, and badger hairs.

If this survey confirms that badgers are present, your planning authority may request a Phase 2 survey. If this survey detects the presence of badgers or the likelihood that badgers are in the vicinity of the development site, a phase 2 survey may be requested by the planning authority.

Phase 2 Badger Survey

This survey, also known as a badger activity survey, aims to confirm whether there are active badgers on your development site and is triggered by a phase 1 survey indicating the presence of badgers. A phase 2 survey will assess how many badgers are active on or around the site and the extent of badger social groups. It can usually be carried out all year round and involves multiple visits to the site at sunrise and sunset.

Ecologists will set up high-tech, motion-triggered infra-red cameras that record video and still images of activity in a badger clan’s territory. The data will be checked, usually 3-4 times over a period of several weeks, for signs of badger.

Badger-cams can be used outside the normal season as the camera can still capture images despite vegetation growth. Additional techniques may include the use of sticks over suspected badger sett entrances, sticky tape to collect badger hairs or sand tunnels to obtain footprints. Knowing the exact population sizes makes it easier to apply for a licence to move or disturb badgers.

Badger social groups forage together.

Badger survey techniques

While the phase 1 survey involves inspection for evidence of badgers, a phase 2 survey requires more time and visits, and specialised equipment such as advanced cameras. A badger bait marking survey is a more specialised operation involving the use of indigestible plastic pellets being left by ecologists outside each identified badger sett on the site. They are often coated in golden syrup or peanut butter to make them appealing to badgers who will eat them and they can be collected from the badger’s droppings, giving evidence of activity. Coloured pellets can be left outside different setts so that ecologists can assess which badgers belong to which sett and social group, based on the pellets collected from badgers’ communal latrines and dung pits.

Equipment used in a badger survey

A phase 1 survey requires access to a grid reference finder or what3words to identify the area in question. A phase 2 survey requires motion-triggered, infrared cameras that capture video and still images of activity. Cameras are usually left in place for four weeks. If this method doesn’t pick up any sightings, a stick and sand trap will be made by layering sand outside a badger sett entrance hole and putting a lightweight stick in the hole to monitor activity every other day for four weeks.

Badger survey report

Following the survey, the ecologist will prepare a report for the local council’s planning department. focusing on the presence or absence of badgers and mitigation if they are found. The ecologist will assess whether the development will disturb any badgers on site. The report will include instructions for changes to the site or project using the mitigation hierarchy, and all the information the local planning authority will need to make a decision on whether to grant or refuse planning permission.

Badger Mitigation

To avoid any negative effect from your development site, ensure heavy machinery, fire, and chemicals are kept at a safe distance and avoid loud noise and vibration near active badger setts: a distance of 30m is the usual benchmark used when assessing potential impacts from development works. If disturbing badgers cannot be avoided, then a licence to disturb badgers, and or destroy the sett, may be required: this allows work to take place that would otherwise be against the law.

Subject to the type and size of the sett, other mitigation strategies can include the provision of a replacement artificial badger sett prior to the destruction of the existing sett, which can only be undertaken once the badgers have been excluded. In terms of environmental management, ideally, badger foraging habitat would be retained but as a last resort, a new habitat could be created. Tunnels and fencing could be installed if new or existing roads posed a threat to the badgers.

Appropriate mitigation strategies will protect any badgers or setts on the development site and contribute to a successful planning application.

A badger survey licence

if disruption to badgers is unavoidable, a licence to disturb and/or destroy badger setts on your development site will be needed from Natural England or Natural Resources Wales. Licences are often issued outside the badger breeding season – July to November – and they allow the necessary mitigation to be carried out and development works that would otherwise be against the law to continue as planned, even with badgers present.

How to get a Badger Survey

To start a badger survey, you need to get in touch with a suitably qualified ecological consultancy like Arbtech. They can tell you what is required and when the survey needs to be done. Contacting an ecological consultancy early on is recommended so that you reduce the chances of delaying your project. Badger surveys cost from £399.

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