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Guide to British Wildlife: Carnivores

The British Isles are relatively small but are home to a surprising number of birds and animals, many of which you may be lucky enough to see when heading outdoors on a shoot or country walk. In the fourth part of our British Wildlife Guide, we are looking at the carnivores that are native to the great British countryside.

Pine Marten (Martes martes)

Part of the mustelid family, which also includes otters and badgers, the pine marten can be identified by its chestnut brown fur with a pale yellow chin and throat called a ‘bib’ and long bushy tail. An elusive animal, the pine marten is found mostly in the north of the UK, particularly the Scottish Highlands. It prefers woodland habitats and can climb well, living in tree holes or old squirrel nests. Being a carnivore, it feeds on small rodents, birds and eggs as well as insects and fruit, and might even visit bird tables with peanuts and raisins. During the summer months, berries such as blackberries and Rowan berries make up a lot of their diet.

Pine marten on a log in a wooded area

European Polecat (Mustela putorius)

The European polecat has a distinct appearance due to its two-tone coat; dark brown guard hairs over a lighter undercoat. It also has white stripes over its dark face giving it a bandit-like appearance. Polecats have short dark tails and rounded ears. In Britain, the polecat used to be regarded as a predator to poultry and was persecuted to near extinction. Today, the numbers are increasing in rural Wales, parts of Scotland and central and southern England. Their habitat ranges from grassland and farmland to wetlands and woodlands, where they feed mainly on rodents, frogs and birds during nocturnal hunts, stalking their prey and killing with a bite to the neck.

A female polecat

Stoat (Mustela erminea)

The stoat can be identified by its orangey-brown back, white underside, and black-tipped tail. It is larger than the smaller weasel (see below) and has a distinctive bounding gait, arching its back as it runs. It’s low slung body, similar to pine martens and weasels, means it is suited for hunting small rodents and rabbits, even able to kill adult rabbits larger than itself. Stoats are widespread in Britain, though absent from some Scottish islands, the Isles of Scilly and most of the Channel Islands. Their habitats are varied from grassland to woodland and can also be found on coastal dunes, heathland and moorland. In colder climates, stoats may turn nearly completely white in winter, known as ‘ermine’, which is much sought after fur in the fashion world.

A stoat standing on a rock

Weasel (Mustela nivalis)

The weasel is the smallest member of the Mustelidae family and also the smallest carnivore in the world, measuring up to 22cm in length. Looking like a miniature version of the stoat with russet-brown fur and a white throat and belly, weasels have smaller tails than stoats with no black tip and a running gait. Weasels are good hunters, feeding on small mammals and birds, as they are small enough to fit into the burrows and nests of their preys. They are found in a variety of habitats across mainland England, Wales and Scotland such as heathland and moorland, woodland, grassland and farmland. Weasels, also known as least weasels in other parts of the world, are prey to other carnivores such as red foxes, stoats, owls and buzzards.

A weasel or least weasel standing on a log

American Mink (Neovision vison)

Introduced in the UK from escaping fur farms in the 50s and 60s, the American mink has now become established in the UK, though its carnivorous diet of water voles and seabirds does make it a threat. Minks are excellent swimmers and very territorial and are widespread through the UK, except for the far north of Scotland and some islands. Being semi-aquatic mammals, minks habitats include freshwater rivers, wetlands and the coast. American minks look similar to otters but they are smaller in size and have black-brown fur, a narrow snout and a white chin.

An American mink

European Badger (Meles meles)

The badger is an iconic mammal in the UK, and also the biggest land predator. It is easy to identify by its large body, silver-grey fur and black and white striped face. They are widespread throughout England, Wales and Scotland, except for the far north of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Scottish islands, Isle of Man, Isle of Scilly and the Channel Islands. The badger is common, but being nocturnal, they are a little harder to spot than red foxes, though you may spot evidence of them in woodlands, grasslands and town gardens. They feed on small animals, ground-nesting bird eggs, earthworms, fruit and roots, using their paws to dig for food. You can find out more about badgers in our animal fact file.

A European badger in a wood looking at the camera

European Otter (Lutra lutra)

Otters are excellent swimmers, so the best place to see them is near water; the coast, rivers and wetlands. They are rare but widespread in Britain, and absent from central and southern England, Isle of Man, Isles of Scilly and the Channel Islands, as they need clean rivers with a plentiful and varied food source. It is often easier to spot signs of otters rather than the animal themselves. Look for five-toed prints in muddy riverbanks and droppings. The otter is one of the top predators in the UK, feeding on fish, water birds, amphibians and crustaceans. Otters are large with grey-brown fur, a broad snout and pale chests. They also have webbed feet and their fur is dense to keep them warm in cold British waters.

An otter standing on rocks in water

Red Fox (Vulpes Vulpes)

One of the most recognisable carnivores in Britain is the red fox, not just for its appearance but also its cunning behaviour. Red foxes have distinctive orange-red fur on their back and tail, with white bellies, dark brown feet, black tips on the ear and a white tip on their bushy tails. The red fox is the only wild member of the dog family in Britain, and is omnivorous, feeding on small mammals, birds, frogs, carrion, earthworms and fruit. Its habitats range from rural landscapes to towns and cities, and it is found all over the country, but absent from the Channel Islands, Isles of Scilly, Isle of Man and Scottish islands. You can find out more about the iconic animal in our red fox animal fact file.

A red fox licking its nose

Wildcat (Felis silvestris)

Known as the ‘Tiger of the Highlands’, the Scottish wildcat is native to Scotland, and under threat from hybridisation with domestic cats. It is shy and its appearance of a large tabby cat makes it hard to spot. However, wildcats are stockier with fluffier, blunt tails, have distinct solid-stripe tabby patterns without white feet and ringed black tails with black tips. Though they were once fairly widespread, the wildcat is now only found in the remote Scottish Highlands in woodland, farmland or grassland. They feed on rabbits and ground-nesting birds. They are nocturnal, another reason why they are hard to spot, and it is estimated there are between 300 to 100 Scottish wildcats left in the wild.

A wildcat yowling

If you are heading out in the great British countryside to see if you can spot weasels, otters or the shy pine marten, make sure you have quality men and ladies country clothing to keep you warm and dry. Investing in some binoculars is an excellent idea for budding wildlife watchers too, so that you can see the wildlife up close, from a distance!

Image credit: Peter Trimming (polecat and American mink), Soumyajit Nandy (stoat), Keven Law (weasel)