Distribution: mainly in Wales but spreading. Widespread throughout the rest of Europe, as far north as southern Sweden & southern Finland.
Habitat: variety of habitats but most often found in woodlands & hedgerows.
Size: male:- head & body 38cm; tail 14cm. Female is smaller.
Description: long, almost cylindrical body with short legs & tail. Dark brown fur with yellowish under-fur showing through; black underparts, legs & tail; white patches on face giving a distinct dark, mask-like pattern.
Weight: male up to 1.5kg. Female a little over half this.
Life-span: up to five years or more.
Food: mainly rodents, also rabbits, frogs, fish, worms and birds.
The polecat used to be called a 'foul mart' because of its strong smell. The name polecat is said to be from the French poule chat,'the chicken cat' and it will kill chickens given the chance! Ferrets are creamy-white, domesticated polecats used to catch rabbits, and some escape or are lost. Many of these ferrets have reverted to polecat colouring over the generations and are known as polecat-ferrets, though they usually have a paler forehead and no mask. They also interbreed with true polecats so polecats vary in colour depending on how much ferret and how much true polecat is in their ancestry. Polecat-ferrets are found throughout Britain.
Home and hunting
The polecat is usually solitary and is mainly active by night, but may sometimes be seen hunting during the day. It moves quickly with its body almost touching the ground, long neck stretched out and short legs moving in a kind of paddling action - it glides rather than runs! Territories are marked with a very strong foul-smelling scent produced by pea-sized glands at the base of the tail. The polecat will live in almost every kind of habitat, even sand dunes and sea cliffs, although it prefers woods and copses. It makes a den in any suitable hole, such as a rabbit burrow, fox earth or natural rock crevice. Sometimes a wood stack is used. In winter, shelter may be sought in a deserted building.
Polecats are less agile than pine martens, and cannot climb as well as they do. They have a keen sense of smell with which to track down prey. Polecats catch mice, rats, voles, rabbits, birds and their eggs, frogs, lizards and snakes. They are said to kill adders and to be immune to their poison. They carry small prey by grasping it in the middle of the back.
Mating takes place between March and May, and after a gestation period (time between mating and birth) of six weeks, a litter of 3 - 8 young is born. The babies, covered with white, silky fur, are born into a nest of dry grass in woods or among rocks. The young leave the nest when two months old and the colours and markings of the adult appear at about three months. Baby polecats huddle together in the nest to keep warm, but in hot weather lie as far apart as possible. Family groups may be seen together in late summer, but by the winter the young polecats have gone their separate ways.
Polecats and Humans
The polecat was once a very common mammal throughout Britain, even found in the outskirts of London, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, persecution by gamekeepers and fur trappers had reduced it to a few isolated populations in central Wales. At the end of the 20th century polecats were found as far north as Manchester, as far south as Wiltshire, and as far east as Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire. A survey in 2004-2006 showed that polecats have continued into central and southern England.
The polecat was once considered as a threat to game and poultry and poultry-killing may be justified to some extent. However, gamekeepers and farmers, who trapped polecats mercilessly, rarely considered that predators like polecats probably help to keep the populations of rats and mice under control. The enormous reduction in polecat numbers might have contributed in the past to the huge increase in the populations of rats.
The polecat was also trapped for its fur, known as 'fitch', which was widely used in the early nineteenth century. Records show that a total of 400 polecat pelts were sold at the old Fur Fair in Dumfries, Scotland, in 1829, and 600 in 1831. In 1866, however, the number of furs for sale there was only six, after which they were not included in the records.
Many years ago, polecat-hunting was practised among the country squires of North Wales, Cheshire, Cumberland and Westmorland, where special packs of hounds were kept to hunt them down.
The Vincent Wildlife Trust is currently carrying out a national polecat survey which is to be completed by the end of 2015. To tell them about sightings and to find out more, please visit http://vwt.org.uk/our-work/projects/national-polecat-survey.
Image: Polecat by Helen Haden
Information sourced from:
Vincent Wildlife (2015), Polecat Mustela putorius [online] Available from: http://www.vwt.org.uk/species/polecat-2/ [accessed 12/07/2015]