The European badger (Meles meles) is a mustelid native to almost all of Europe. It has a wide range and a large stable population size and is thought to be increasing in some regions. In Europe, where no other badger species commonly occurs, it is generally just called the "badger".
European badgers are powerfully built animals with small heads, thick, short necks, stocky, wedge-shaped bodies and short tails. Their limbs are short and massive, with naked lower surfaces on the feet. The claws are strong, elongated and have an obtuse end, which assists in digging. The claws are not retractable, and the hind claws wear with age. Old badgers sometimes have their hind claws almost completely worn away from constant use. Their snouts, which are used for digging and probing, are muscular and flexible. The eyes are small and the ears are short and tipped with white. Whiskers are present on the snout and above the eyes. In winter, the fur on the back and flanks are long and coarse, consisting of bristly guard hairs with a sparse, soft undercoat. The belly fur consists of short, sparse hairs, with the skin visible in the inguinal region. Prior to the winter, the throat, lower neck, chest and legs are black. The belly is of a lighter, brownish tint, while the inguinal region is brownish-grey. The general colour of the back and sides is light silvery-grey, with straw-coloured highlights on the sides. The tail has long and coarse hair and is generally the same colour as the back. Two black bands pass along the head, starting from the upper lip and passing upwards to the whole base of the ears. The bands sometimes extend along the neck and merge with the colour of the upper body. A wide, white band extends from the nose tip through the forehead and crown. White markings occur on the lower part of the head and extend backwards to a great part of the neck's length. The summer fur is much coarser, shorter and sparser, and is deeper in colour, with the black tones becoming brownish, sometimes with yellowish tinges.
They are found throughout most of Europe as well as western Asia. The area of their distribution extends southward to the southeastern coast of China and northward, reaching the Russian Arctic Circle and Finland. They live in a wide variety of habitats such as scrub, hedges, riverine areas, farmland, grassland, steppes, and semi-deserts. However, their preferred habitat is a conifer, deciduous and mixed woodlands, adjacent to open fields. European badgers also occur in mountainous areas.
European badgers are the most social of badgers; they form groups of 6 adults on average, though larger associations of up to 23 individuals have been recorded. Under optimal conditions, badger territories can be as small as 30 ha (74 acres), but may be as large as 150 ha (370 acres) in marginal areas. These territories can be identified by the presence of communal latrines and well-worn paths. It is mainly males that are involved in territorial aggression. A hierarchical social system is thought to exist among badgers and large powerful males seem to assert dominance over smaller males. Like other badger species, European badgers are burrowing animals. The dens they construct (called setts) are the most complex and are passed on from generation to generation. The number of exits in one sett can vary from a few to fifty. These setts can be vast, and can sometimes accommodate multiple families. When this happens, each family occupies its own passages and nesting chambers. The chambers are frequently lined with bedding, brought in on dry nights, which consists of grass, bracken, straw, leaves, and moss. Badgers groom each other very thoroughly with their claws and teeth. Grooming may have a social function. They are crepuscular and nocturnal in habits. Aggression among badgers is largely associated with territorial defense and mating. When fighting, they bite each other on the neck and rump, while running and chasing each other and injuries incurred in such fights can be severe and sometimes fatal. When attacked by dogs, badgers may raise their tails and fluff up their fur. European badgers have an extensive vocal repertoire. When threatened, they emit deep growls and, when fighting, make low kekkering noises. They bark when surprised, whicker when playing or in distress, and emit a piercing scream when alarmed or frightened. Badgers begin to prepare for winter sleep during late summer by accumulating fat reserves, which reach a peak in October. During this period, the sett is cleaned and the nesting chamber is filled with bedding. Upon retiring to sleep, badgers block their sett entrances with dry leaves and earth.
European badgers are omnivores, consuming food of both plant and animal origin. The usual diet of the Eurasian badger includes earthworms, insects, mammals like rabbits, various rodents, beetles, wasps, carrion, birds, frogs, lizards, snails, tortoises, fish, eggs, fruits, grain, fungi, tubers, and green food such as clover and grass.
Badgers are usually monogamous; boars typically mate with one female for life, whereas sows have been known to mate with more than one male. Typically, only dominant sows can breed, as they suppress the reproduction of subordinate females. European badgers can mate at any time of the year, though the main peak occurs in February-May. The gestation period lasts 7 weeks and cubs are usually born in mid-January to mid-March in warm underground chambers. The average litter consists of 1-5 cubs. They are born pink, with greyish, silvery fur and fused eyelids. Newborns are 12 cm (4.7 in) in body length on average and weigh 75 to 132 g (2.6 to 4.7 oz). By 3-5 days, their claws become pigmented, and individual dark hairs begin to appear. Their eyes open at 4-5 weeks and their milk teeth erupt about the same time. They emerge from their setts at 8 weeks of age and begin to be weaned at 12 weeks, though they may still suckle until they are 4-5 months old. Subordinate females assist the mother in guarding, feeding, and grooming the cubs. Cubs fully develop their adult coats at 6-9 weeks. Young males usually become reproductively mature at the age of 12-15 months but this can range from 9 months to 2 years. Young females usually are able to breed in their second year, though some exceptionally begin at 9 months.
Throughout their range, these animals are threatened by fragmentation and loss of habitat. They are persecuted due to being pest crops and disease vectors. In addition, the badgers are often hunted for sport and hit by cars.
According to IUCN, the European badger is common and widespread throughout its range but the total number of their population is unknown. However, in 1990, the estimated badger population in Russia was about 30,000 individuals. The population of this species is currently stable, and on the IUCN Red List, it is classified as Least Concern (LC).
The major part of their diet consists of invertebrates. Meanwhile, by consuming insects, badgers control a large number of insect species' populations. On the other hand, due to eating fruit, they become important seed dispersers throughout the area of their range. According to one study, only a small percentage of seeds are damaged, when ingested by badgers.