Many of Britain’s wild carnivore species have returned in numbers from the brink of extinction, despite humanity encroaching on their natural habitat.

In the face of historic declines, most of the country’s predatory mammal populations have shown marked improvement since the 1960s, according to a new study. Once-endangered species like otters have repopulated old habitats across the country, polecats have spread through southern regions and pine martens now range freely in the Scottish Highlands.

Polecats now range freely in the Scottish Highlands.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Peter Trimming

Animals like stoat, red fox, badger and weasel have endured official culls, traps, toxic chemicals and increasing traffic volume to survive.

“Most of these animals declined in the 19th century, but they are coming back as a result of legal protection, conservation, removal of pollutants and restoration of habitats,” Professor Robbie McDonald, head of Exeter university’s Wildlife Science group told The Guardian.

The wildcat is the only one of Britain’s carnivorous mammals still under threat. Hybridisation with domestic and feral cats has caused the wildcat headcount in Scotland to dwindle.

Natural survivor

Following regulatory changes in Britain, carnivore populations have been largely responsible for their own revival and each species has recovered for different reasons. Once policy changes were given time to take effect, the surprise carnivore resurgence has happened in a relatively short time-span.

A law passed in 1973 gave badgers legally protected status – later extended to cover their setts – resulting in their numbers doubling since the 1980s, for example.

Similarly, otter populations thrived following a 1978 ban on otter hunting in England and Wales, and further restrictions on the sale of dangerous pesticides which polluted the animal’s river habitats.

 Otters are thriving once more in England and Wales.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Peter Trimming

Keeping track of the population density of some of these wild species is no easy task. Researchers at Exeter University relied on reports from gamekeepers to estimate the populations of small, fast-moving, hard-to-track creatures like stoats and weasels.

Despite restrictions on human predatory behaviour, some animal species still receive a hostile reception from gamekeepers, farmers and anglers, highlighting the need to find ways for animals and humans to coexist.

The world in nature

The wider implications of species loss and the impact of human activity on the natural world were taken up by naturalist Sir David Attenborough, speaking at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.

As a result of legal protection and conservation, red fox populations are beginning to recover.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Airwolfhound

“The problem about extermination of species is that the natural world, of which we are a part, is incredibly complex,” he said. “We have to recognise that every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food we take, comes from the natural world and that if we damage the natural world we damage ourselves.”

Global warming caused by human activity has impacted animals, their habitats and whole ecosystems, and poses an existential threat to all of earth’s species, including humans.

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index 2018, shows that many species of mammals, birds, reptiles and marine life have more than halved over the last 50 years.

Sir David explained that humanity has the power and the knowledge to live in harmony with nature, and called on the world’s political and business leaders to renew their efforts to tackle climate change - before it is too late.

“What we do in the next few years will profoundly affect the next few thousand years,” he said.