There are actually only three animal species on earth with extraordinarily strong ties to their habitats. The first is the termite; some termite hills remain occupied for hundreds of years. The oldest known termite hill was found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is believed to be 2200 years old. The second species is man, living in cities that are thousands of years old, the oldest being Jericho, whose history of occupation goes back 11,000 years.
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But the all-time record holder in this respect is the badger, or actually the Eurasian badger. Barring a disaster, badgers will never abandon their setts. Many badger setts are thousands of years old. Badger remains discovered in a cave system near Cheddar were found to date from up to 60,000 years ago. In this case it could be argued that the caves afforded natural shelter to which the badgers could easily gain access by digging through the collapsed entrance. But excavations of an even older sett in the Czech Republic have shown that badgers may have lived there for 100,000 years, excluding ice ages.
This will not surprise anyone who is familiar with badger setts and has studied badgers’ customs. Badgers were already around when you were born and will still be around by the time you die. In spite of intensive, horrific persecution, they always return to their ruined setts to reclaim their old occupation sites with fresh vigour.
This exceptional loyalty to their habitat and their remarkably strong social family ties make badgers both successful and extremely vulnerable. When they are not out foraging or defending their family territory they are to be found at home in their setts. In the event of danger, they rely on their black and white mask and their ability to inflate their skin to make them appear twice as large and more threatening. But although they can always seek refuge in the tunnels of their setts, they are no match for humans, packs of dogs or poisonous chemicals.
From time immemorial humans and badgers have had a love-hate relationship that is not as evident – or actually as absurd - as in Britain. In the UK, badgers are better protected by law than anywhere else in the world. Builders and any other parties that may disturb badgers, their setts or habitats must hire a special consultant to relocate the badgers or compensate for any damage to setts, wildlife crossings or badgers’ foraging areas. Tunnels are dug, and fences are put up to guide the animals to the traffic-safe tunnels. Artificial setts are created for badges that have to make way for humans’ construction urge, to offer them a fresh start elsewhere.
All this makes it extra bizarre that the British government is constantly engaged in developing new extermination campaigns that may kill even the carefully relocated badgers that have learnt to feel safe in their new abodes. The new tunnels and setts created at such great cost then remain unused because the badgers for which they were intended have been killed by government order.
In France, tens of thousands of badgers are cruelly torn apart by dogs. Germans shoot 60,000 badgers a year. But the French have never claimed to protect badgers. And in Germany, badgers enjoy only partial protection: they are left in peace for nine months a year, but the other three months they live in fear of their lives.
In Great Britain no animal has been as closely studied and scientifically analysed as the badger. And evidently with only one real purpose: to find out how to kill it as effectively as possible. But in the end badgers will survive; from time immemorial they are accustomed to dying thousands of deaths.
Long after we have outlived our human sett on earth, badgers will return to their setts, loyal and undaunted.
Chairman, Vereniging Nederlands Cultuurlandschap