Photograph of a European otter

Conserving Britain’s Carnivores

For International Women’s Day 2020, Dr Kate Sainsbiry of the Department of Zoology gave a fascinating talk about her research into the conservation of British carnivores. Populations of these charismatic animals have gone up and down over the years. Here you can discover why, and what has been and is being done to protect them.

Here are some things to think about from watching this talk:

  1. How have our attitudes toward mammalian carnivores changed over the years?
  2. What are some of the different ways people have impacted carnivore populations?
  3. How did the use of the pesticide Dieldrin affect otter populations? And what has happened to them since this chemical has been banned?
  4. Rabbits are an important prey species for a lot of these animals. In the late 1950s, rabbit populations in Britain crashed with the myxomatosis virus. This affected different carnivore species in different ways. Can you explain how? This shows how interconnected different organisms are in an ecosystem.
  5. How are people working to conserve British carnivores today?

What is a Carnivore?

The way we are using the term ‘carnivore’ here is slightly different from the way we use it when talking about animal diets. This video is referring to mammals belonging the the order Carnivora. There are many animals that eat other animals that are not members of this order of mammals: crocodiles, sharks, snakes, bats, Tasmanian devils, to name just a few.

Photograph of a wolf skull labelled up with the carnassial teeth
Wolf skull in the Museum of Zoology

How to tell if you have a member of the Carnivora? For most, you can see from their teeth. They have an fourth upper premolar and first lower molar that form a pair of teeth we call the carnassials. These act a little like a pair of scissors, shearing through meat and tendons. In some members of the order, these have been modified again so they no longer have this function. Other features, plus the sequence of their DNA, help us to identify these animals as members of the Carnivora.

Carnivores in Britain today

There are eight native carnivore species found inland in Britain today:

Photograph of a pair of foxes looking toward the viewer

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes

The red fox is a member of the Canidae – the dog family. Red foxes eat pretty much anything – they are doing well in towns and cities scavenging food to eat from our rubbish.

Photograph of a badger

Badger, Meles meles

The badger is a member of the Mustelidae – the weasel family. It has short legs, a strong jaws and a characteristic black and white striped face. They are omnivores, eating many different foods, and live underground in a network of chambers called a sett.

Photograph of an otter eating a fish

Otter, Lutra lutra

The otter is a member of the Mustelidae – the weasel family. Otters are adapted to life in the water, with webbed feet to help them to swim and dense fur to keep them warm. They hunt for fish and other aquatic animals.

Image credit: big ashb

Photograph of a pine marten

Pine Marten, Martes martes

The pine marten is a member of the Mustelidae – the weasel family. Pine martens spend much of their lives up in the trees. They have chestnut-brown fur and a pale yellow bib under the chin. Pine martens are mostly found in Scotland today.

Image credit: Charlie Marshall

Photograph of a polecat

Polecat, Mustela putorius

The polecat is a member of the Mustelidae – the weasel family. Polecats have quite dark fur with a pale underfur and face, and dark ‘bandit mask’ across the eyes. They feed on rabbits, rodents and sometimes amphibians and birds.

Image credit: Malene

Photograph of a stoat

Stoat, Mustela erminea

The stoat is a member of the Mustelidae – the weasel family. Stoats have a reddish brown coat with a cream chest and black tip to the tail. Some stoats turn white in winter. Stoats arch their back as they run, giving them a characteristic ‘bounding’ gait.

Image credit: Charlie Marshall

Photograph of a weasel

Weasel, Mustela nivalis

The weasel is a member of the Mustelidae – the weasel family. The weasel is the smallest of the British carnivores, measuring just 20-27cm in length. They have a long, slender body and short legs, perfect for following rodent prey into burrows.

Image credit: Kevin Law

Photograph of a wild cat

Wild Cat, Felis sylvestris

The wild cat is a member of the Felidae – the cat family. The European wild cat is larger and sturdier than domestic cats, with a bushy tail. They can interbreed with domestic cats.

Image credit: Michael Gabler

Find out more…

The following websites are full of information about these animals and their conservation:

Woodland Trust

Wildlife Trusts

Mammal Society

Vincent Wildlife Trust

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