While the viral honey badger video may have you thinking that badgers are “badass and don’t give a sh*t”, in Southern Ontario there are only about 200 badgers left, and farmers are their best bet for survival.
That is why the BadgerWay program was developed. In its second year, the program is run by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) and funded through Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). The program helps farmers fund projects to develop their lands to be better habitats for badgers, who have been declared a species-at-risk both provincially and federally.
“What early researchers found is that badgers are very dependent on farmland habitats. Farms actually provide the best habitat we have in Ontario for badgers,” says Andréa Dubé-Goss, Environmental Programs Manager for OSCIA.
“We learnt there was a really key opportunity here to create a program that was focused on agricultural lands and working with farmers directly.”
Badgers have a complicated relationship with farming. In the prairies where certain species of badgers thrive, agriculture competes directly with the plains that the badgers are best suited for. As a burrowing animal, badgers excel in wide stretches of land. The prairies allow them to spot prey from far away, and they can easily dig them out, as well as create dens, called burrows, to sleep in.
Down in Southern Ontario, agriculture development actually increases the amount of habitat available.
“In some parts of Southern Ontario there is very sandy soil which leads to a high risk of erosion, making larger fields less desirable. Because of this there has been a lot of effort into replanting forests in those areas,” says Josh Sayers, who leads the Ontario Badger Project, an organization dedicated to studying and protecting badgers.
“There are also a lot of creeks and ravines, and some fields will have them on either side, making it difficult and dangerous to bring equipment too near to the edges of the fields. These are all little strips of habitats that combine to make this mosaic of habitats on the landscape.”
Badgers make their homes in these non-crop barriers where grasses and other wild plants grow, eating rodents, frogs, eggs from nests and whatever else they can get their carnivorous paws on.
These strips of habitat lead to a lack of concentrated prey base, forcing badgers in Ontario to be nomadic, moving around from site to site every few days to find enough to eat, and when the time is right, to mate. In Ontario, one male badger was found to have moved around an area of 330 square kilometres, or 80,000 acres.
With badgers being nocturnal, scarce and travelling such large distances, it’s rare for farmers to get an actual sighting on their land. Instead they look for signs of their presence, the main one being their dens.
Amy Kitchen, who along with her husband runs a 60-acre farm producing vegetables, flowers, poultry and pork, recently completed a one kilometre windbreak through the BadgerWay program. The windbreak consists of a long line of trees, native vegetation and shrubbery that borders a fence row running straight through one of her fields.
Kitchen’s farm is all organic, using no pesticides in the growing process, and this windbreak is another step in their efforts to minimize their impact on the landscape, as well as help out her furry friends.
“Even though we farm organically let’s not pretend there isn’t a big impact on the area because there still is,” says Kitchen.
“The windbreak is a really nice thing to be able to talk to our customers about the things we are doing on our farm to lessen our impacts on the surrounding area.”
The windbreak in total cost about $14,000, with 80 per cent of that being covered by BadgerWay.
While the windbreak has always been a plan for the farm, Kitchen says that without the BadgerWay program they would have had to wait ten to twenty years before they had the disposable funds to make it happen. Now they can enjoy its benefits while they are still working and living on the land.
Those benefits don’t only extend to badgers, the windbreak has other advantages for the farm and ecosystem as well. The windbreak is full of vegetation that flowers and has lots of berries, making it an ideal pollinator habitat. The windbreak also serves to connect a previously isolated four acres of bush to other habitat zones, creating a wildlife corridor for animals to move through. All-in-all the project will increase biodiversity on the farm to help the overall ecosystem.
It’s projects and programs like BadgerWay that can help incentivize conservation efforts for farmers who are interested but don’t have the capital to invest immediately, says Dubé-Goss.
“More and more farmers are interested in protecting little bits of land here and there and they see the value in that, but there’s only so much anyone is willing to pay out of their own pocket for this. To do something on a larger scale is really where these programs come into play, allowing these little areas of roughland.”
Sayers says that in many ways badgers would make a great mascot for ecological farming in Ontario.
“A lot of the areas that badgers are using overlap considerably with what would be considered a pollinator habitat. In a way, badgers can be an indicator of a healthy agricultural ecosystem with lots of biodiversity.”