This report is part of our series The naturalist’s walk: a hike to discover an exceptional species or environment, in the company of an enthusiast.
National forest of Rambouillet (Yvelines), report
On this sunny afternoon with temperatures well above normal for the season, Aymeric Benoit, 35, browses in his “ oasis » with his dog, Windy: the national forest of Rambouillet (Yvelines). Only the passage of a few planes disturbs the tranquility of the undergrowth. In the middle of the ferns, the two friends spot a burrow in front of which the earth has been cleared by a mysterious inhabitant. “ The paws are wider than those of the fox, we can still see the presence of traces of claws. She’s a badger », explains the president of the Center for the Study of Rambouillet and its forest (Cerf78), also founder of the association for the preservation of biodiversity Naturabios and member of the Association for the protection of wild animals (Aspas). The occupant of this den has a black and white head and an elongated snout: it is the European badger. “ Meles meles is the largest representative of the mustelidae family  in France — 12 kilograms on average »specifies a report from Aspas on the mammal.
- Aymeric Benoit, president of the Rambouillet study center and its forest. © Clémence Michels/Reporterre
“ After digging their badger boxes on sloping ground at the edge or in the heart of the forest, they regularly go around their territory, always going through the same paths.explains the naturalist. When you enter the forest, you also enter their home, so you have to know how to respect their habitat. » In particular the small paths, the “ flows »which connect the burrows of these mammals.
Around 6 p.m., near the badger fields, a shadow sprang up and disappeared in a few seconds in the thickets. Almost invisible, badgers are nocturnal animals, “ except when they are small, because they sometimes go out at the end of the day to play », says Aymeric Benoit. He specifies that this omnivore feeds according to the seasons. “ acorns, berries, remains of dead animals, or even small animals found in other burrows, such as voles. » To relieve itself, it forms sorts of “ small jars ». “ It is very clean and orderly », exclaims Aymeric Benoit. “ Apart from the wolf and humans, it has no predators and coexists easily with its neighbors. For example, badgers share roosts with foxes if their habitat is large enough. They tolerate each other without a problem. »
The very first World Badger Day, launched by Aspas, takes place on Sunday 15 May. Objective: to put an end to the destruction of this animal. The ministerial decree of June 26, 1987 classifies it in the game category: it can be shot or dug up during the legal hunting period, from mid-September to the end of February. Even from May 15 in certain departments “ while the young are not yet weaned and still live with their mother »deplores the Aspas lawyer Manon Delattre.
Among the authorized hunting techniques, underground hunting is practiced “ with a crew comprising a pack of dogs served by hunters moving either on foot or on horseback », such as hunting with hounds, according to the decree of March 18, 1982. At the end of the hunt underground, the badger is cornered in its burrow by the dogs then extirpated by hand or using pliers. About twenty individuals are slaughtered each year in the Yvelines department.
- Badger populations are weakened. “ They have on average only between 1 and 5 badgers per year. » © Clémence Michels/Reporterre
Disputes between naturalist associations and federations of hunters
A fight rages between hunters and conservationists over the need to regulate the mustelid. Currently, the badger is not classified as a species likely to cause damage (Esod), so it is not considered “ harmful ». On the phone, Manon Delattre points out that “ the Esod are classified according to three categories, two of which are effective under ministerial decrees, and one under prefectural decree ». Unlike the fox, the badger is not on any of these lists, so cannot be “ destroy ».
- “ Badgers share roosts with foxes if their habitat is large enough. They tolerate each other without a problem. » Aymeric Benoit
But the badger, “ by behavior and diet », would “ liable to cause damage », according to the Interdepartmental Federation of Hunters of Île-de-France. It would have caused in the Yvelines nearly 4,355.60 euros in damage in 2020.  “ While there weren’t even badgers thirty years ago in the region, today they are vectors of diseases such as bovine tuberculosis and the cause of agricultural destruction as they eat crops. », says Stéphane Walczak, technician of the Interdepartmental Federation of Hunters of Île-de-France (Ficif). The latter would have identified problems related to badgers in private individuals, businesses and at the level of a railway embankment in the SNCF : “ Galleries dug on the Rambouillet racecourse collapsed when the tractor passed by, mowing the grass on the track [et] a horse could have broken a leg following the collapse of a gallery. » The association of winegrowers of Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines has announced “ recurring damage to their vines in the fall, despite a protective fence »continues the Federation. “ We also note that during the examination of the file for compensation for damage to big game, damage caused by badgers is attributed to wild boar. »
- We can clearly distinguish the pads and the long claws of the badger. It is the largest member of the mustelidae family. Aymeric Benoit
Arguments refuted by environmentalists. Badgers, although susceptible to tuberculosis infection, have very little chance of transmitting this disease to humans, reports Aymeric Benoit, citing a revised collective expert report from the National Food Safety Agency (Anses) on the management of bovine tuberculosis. “ Moreover, being a very discreet nocturnal species, it seems difficult to confirm with certainty that damage was caused by these animals. »continues the naturalist.
- A badger patch in Rambouillet. Aymeric Benoit
Above all, badger populations would be weakened. “ They have trouble reproducing. The sexual maturity of the badger is at two years, and they have on average only between 1 and 5 badgers per year, of which almost half do not survive during the year », explains Manon Delattre. The mustelid is also included in the Bern Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats, which came into force in France in 1990. This implies that the regulation of the badger must not call into question the conservation status of the species at the national level. Several European countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Greece, Spain and Portugal have decided to fully protect the badger.
According to Aspas, France remains the “ only country to legally practice digging ». Manon Delattre remains optimistic. In Yvelines, the additional period of underground badger hunting, from mid-May to September, has not been authorized since 2020. “ That’s very good news », rejoices the lawyer. And a first step towards increased protection of this inhabitant of the undergrowth ?