The distribution of Eurasian badger, Meles meles, setts in a high-density area: Field observations contradict the sett dispersion hypothesis
Macdonald DW., Newman C., Dean J., Buesching CD., Johnson PJ.
Are setts significant determinants of badger socio-spatial organisation, and do suitable sett sites represent a limited resource, potentially affecting badger distributions? The factors determining diurnal resting den, or sett, location and selection by Eurasian badgers Meles meles L. were investigated in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire. 279 sett sites were located. The habitat parameters that were associated with the siting of these setts were analysed and associations were sought between sett location and character and the body condition and body weight of resident badgers Habitat characteristics in the vicinity of setts were significantly different from randomly selected points. Badgers preferentially selected sites with sandy, well-drained soils, situated on NW-facing, convex and moderately inclined slopes at moderate altitude. There was no evidence that sett morphology (number of entrances, sett area, number of hinterland latrines) was affected by the surrounding sett site habitat characteristics. Mean body weight was significantly higher for badgers occupying territories with setts in sandy soils, situated on NW-facing slopes, than in territories with less optimal sett characteristics. Contrary to the hypothesis that the availability of sett sites was limiting, and therefore that sett dispersion dictates the spatial and social organisation of their populations, the badgers were clearly able to excavate new setts. On our measures, these new setts were not inferior to old established ones, despite occupying subsequently exploited sites; the badgers utilising these new setts had neither lighter body weights nor poorer body condition scores. During the period of our study badgers have manifestly been able to dig numerous new setts; as satisfactory sites still remain available, this indicates that suitable sett sites have not yet become a limiting resource. There was no relationship between sett age and the characteristics of the site in which it was dug, as suitable sites were not limiting. Significantly, population expansion during the decade 1987-1997 was not constrained by lack of setts, rather the main proliferation in setts occurred after the population size had peaked in 1996. Some implications for the management and conservation of the Eurasian badger are considered.