The animals belonging to the order Carnivora are relatively large and diverse and, after millennia of hunting and persecution by man, have in general learnt to keep themselves concealed from him. This makes sightings exciting and tracking often difficult. Three families occur in the wild in the UK; the Canidae, or dogs, are represented by the fox; the Felidae, or cats, by the Scottish wild cat, and the Mustelidae by an assortment of creatures, including pine martens, badgers and otters.
All members of the Order have well-developed musk glands just below the base of their tail, and scent is very important when marking out territories and during mating season. Remains of kills made by carnivores will often have a characteristic musty odour, making it fairly easy to differentiate them from kills made by other predators.
Canidae - The Dog Family
The common fox Vulpes vulpes is the only member of the family to occur in the wild in Britain. It has often been a creature associated with cunning and stealth, and is at its most active at night, though it is not uncommon to see its red coat flashing by in the daytime. Its den is a simple hole in the ground, often an enlarged rabbit hole or old badger sett, and can be distinguished from the latter by its untidiness. Dung or left-overs from meals may frequently be found near the entrance, and there is often a trademark musty smell that can also be detected when a fox has passed by.
Foxes have often been contentious creatures. In 2003, the British Government outlawed traditional hunts, in which a fox would be pursued over the countryside by teams of hunters on horseback accompanied by packs of dogs. To the hunters, the activity was a long-standing social occasion providing useful employment and a way of keeping numbers down; to hunt opponents, it was a barbaric activity that pointlessly saw a frightened fox being ripped apart by hounds. The hunting ban merely seemed to polarise Britons further on the matter.
Farmers have also always treated foxes as pests, and it is undeniable that if a fox gets into a chicken-house, carnage will ensue, the intruder often killing every bird it can find. Some interpret this as bloodlust, but in the wild foxes will often make kills, cover them in scent and return to them later, and it is almost certainly this facet of the foxes' behaviour that leads them to do this. Likewise, gamekeepers despise them for their attacks on 'game' birds, but to a fox coming across a bird that has been fed so much it can barely fly, the meal opportunity must be irresistible.
Felidae - The Cat Family
Though there are feral cats of the domestic species Felis domesticus living wild, the only true breed of wild cat is the Scottish wildcat Felis silvestris. Found north of the Firth of Forth, it is not considered common and is one of the great roamers of British wildlife. Man's activity has driven it into the remotest outposts of northern Scotland, where it makes its den in rocky crevices and hunts over long distances. Often the only sign of its passing is the remnants of favoured food such as hares and rabbits, although tracks may be occasionally found in soft ground or snow.
Rumours persist of other large cats sighted in sparsely inhabited parts of the UK, and stories of animals like 'The Dartmoor Beast'1 abound in quiet pubs all over the land. Though there is evidence to suggest the presence of big cats such as pumas, probably released in the 1970s when keeping such animals as pets became illegal in the UK, the case for them has yet to be compellingly built.
Mustelidae - The Mustelid Family
Mustelids form the majority of Britain's carnivores, and consist of weasels, stoats, badgers, otters, polecats and martens. All tend to feast off the brains of their kills first, so a good identification of a kill by a mustelid is that the base of the cranium will be bitten through. The musty smell given out by the glands is particularly strong in this family.
Badger Meles meles
The black-and-white-striped face of the badger is often used as an emblem for conservation and wildlife in the UK, yet it is also a creature that divides opinion – though thankfully not as much as the fox! Though 'brocks2' are easy to locate by their long networks of tunnels known as setts, they are another creature that is notoriously wary of man, and to see badgers live and in the wild is for many a rare treat. Footage of badgers at play is a regular staple of webcams and wildlife programmes.
Badgers will eat pretty much anything they come across; a basic diet of vegetable matter and beetles is often supplemented by birds, small mammals, tree sap (sycamore is a particular favourite) and occasionally the contents of a bee's nest. They are very clean animals, using regular latrines that also have territorial significance and keeping the area around sett entrances clear of leftover food. Creatures of habit, they have been known to use the same forest paths for centuries, and this is partly why new roads frequently have lots of badger casualties – poor old brock will carry on using the path, regardless of the vehicles now crossing it.
Concerns over bovine tuberculosis have recently gone some way to legitimising farmers' long-held dislike of badgers; they are considered by many farmers to be responsible for spreading TB among cattle. Once simply secretly trapped or shot, an official cull has become a distinct possibility, despite the badger's status as a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Otter Lutra lutra
Once considered to be near extinction in much of Britain, otters have made a remarkable comeback. For example, the river Dart in Devon is now considered to be a stronghold, with otter territories believed to cover its entire length3. Otters are mainly nocturnal and are very good at detecting the odour of approaching humans, and the best ways to detect the presence of otters is to look for their signs. These include 'spraints' (excrement that is sticky and a purplish black when fresh, often with a particularly fishy smell), 'slides' (wet muddy slopes that they slide down, apparently for fun) and feeding places, where one may find remains of their fishy diet.
The otter's abode is called a holt, and is simply a big hole in the riverbank. It will have an underwater entrance and will also be well-hidden by overhanging trees and vegetation. Otters living by the sea have adapted well to marine life, and will supplement their diet with fresh fish, and make their holts in rockpiles and cliffs.
Pine Marten Martes martes
The pine marten was once fairly common in Britain, but constant persecution by man has driven it to the remote parts of the country. It is now only found in the north-west of Scotland and the wilder parts of the Lake District, Peak District and north Wales; it prefers woodland but has adapted well to quiet rocky uplands. A great hunter, its diet consists of just about anything it can catch; small mammals (up to squirrel-size) and small birds and eggs are prime targets. It is quicker than a roe deer and is only outswum by otters among British mammals.
Pine martens are rarely seen, but their feeding places can occasionally be found. High vantage points with good views are preferred, and feeding leftovers (bones, fur and feathers) will probably be found along with purpley, curled 'scat'4. Close inspection of the scat will reveal more bits of fur and bone. Pine martens usually live high in trees, often in old squirrels' dreys or crows' nests, but those living in higher ground will build their 'dens' in rocky crevices.
Polecat Mustela putorius
The wild ancestor of the domesticated ferret – the two will interbreed quite happily – has a fairly limited but increasing distribution, occurring mainly in Wales and the Welsh borders and occasionally turning up in the Lake District. It likes secluded valleys, particularly those with woods and farmland, but is a poor climber and is restricted to lurking on the ground. Polecats are most infamous for their smelly musk, often described as the foulest smell emitted by any mammal!
Ferrets are much more common, the domestic version of M. putorius having spent many years escaping from captivity. They are albino, but cross-breeds between ferrets and polecats (known, imaginatively, as 'polecat-ferrets') may be any colour from white to dark brown. They can be found anywhere in the country.
Stoat Mustela erminea
Also known as short-tailed weasels5, stoats are fairly small mustelids, only about a foot in length. They have fairly slender bodies, making them well-suited to hunting in hedgerows and meadows where the terrain provides plenty of cover. Their diet consists mainly of small mammals, predominantly rabbits, voles and small rodents, though like most carnivores they will supplement their diet with berries, eggs and earthworms where necessary. Males and females live separately, coming together only to mate.
Stoats are very wily hunters and are rarely taken by predators unless very young. Like foxes, they will frenzy when faced with abundant prey, such as in a chicken run, with the intention of returning to feast on more carcasses later. In the past, stoats were frequently trapped, partly for this reason, and partly for their white winter fur, known as 'ermine'.
Least weasel Mustela nivalis
Weasels are Britain's smallest carnivores, able to follow other mammals down tunnels, and are also probably the most numerous. They are most abundant where their prey of rodents and small insectivores are found; anywhere from woodland to urban environments, and less common at higher altitudes. Where they have followed prey into a tunnel, they will often take over the hole as their 'den', and like stoats the males and females live apart.
Incredibly, although they are apt killers at around eight weeks of age, only a little over 1% of weasels will survive past two years. Being small mammals, they are often confused with less aggressive prey by predators such as owls and foxes. Humans often confuse them with stoats, too; the way to tell the difference is to look at the tip of the tail, which is black on stoats. Weasels do not turn white in winter in the UK, though interestingly they do in Scandinavia.
Occasionally, you may see a weasel 'dancing'; standing on its back legs and waving its forepaws around wildly. Although this used to be considered part of a mating ritual or as a way of hypnotising its prey, it is in fact caused by the irritating presence of a parasitic worm, which will eventually eat the weasel's brain.
American mink Mustela vison
Having been introduced to fur farms in Britain in 1929, the American mink has been a regular escapee and has caused considerable damage to the local fauna. It is a fast, agile hunter, capable of swimming across several miles of open water, and has had a huge impact on both seabird and small mammal populations across much of the UK. It is of such concern that it is one of the few creatures for which a cull would be no big news; indeed, it is considered essential on the Western Islands of Scotland.
The happiest story, particularly for water voles (the species most affected by mink predation), is that where otters thrive, the mink does not. While the reasons for this are so far unclear, the resurgence of the otter is very good news indeed for Britain's native mammals.