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This magnificent animal was almost exterminated from the UK by persecution. In the early 20th Century, polecats remained mainly in mid-Wales. However, the good news is they have been staging a comeback. The National Polecat Survey is now asking members of the public to help by sending in records of any sightings. This will allow the current distributions of the recovering population to be mapped, and help to pinpoint where conservation efforts should be targeted.
Polecats are part of the mustelid family and so are closely related to weasels and stoats. Their main prey in Britain is wild rabbits. Their most striking feature is the mask-like pattern of dark and light fur on their face. They are elusive animals that use a wide range of habitats, but they can sometimes be spotted crossing roads, particularly at night.
Dr Johnny Birks from The Mammal Society says, “The British population of polecats was historically decimated to protect poultry and game birds like the pheasant. Thanks to a decline in numbers of gamekeepers and partial legal protection, persecution of polecats has gradually diminished, allowing the population to recover. This is very exciting news as elsewhere in Europe the animal remains in trouble.”
Evidence from previous surveys shows that hybridisation with feral ‘fitch’ ferrets may be diluting the true polecat population in some areas. These hybrids usually have pale fur on their paws, white chest patches, more substantial pale face markings, and sometimes a pale nose. However, their survival in the wild is compromised by their ‘ferrety’ genes.
Lizzie Croose from the Vincent Wildlife Trust says, “Although the polecat is recovering, it is important to remember that it is still rare or absent in many parts of Britain. Whilst they are capable of travelling long distances, we are currently unsure whether roads hinder their progress. Not only are many hit by cars, but the increasing use of concrete central reservations in major roads presents a major physical barrier that is difficult to cross. We are now asking the public to help us to track the changing fortune of the polecat by sending in information about any animals they see. This is our third national survey, which means we can see where polecats have spread to, and also where the gaps still remain. Now is a great time of year for spotting polecats – dead or alive – as juveniles are currently dispersing to set up their own territories.”
Sightings of live polecats and of casualties seen on the road can be reported using The Mammal Society’s free Mammal Tracker App www.mammal.org.uk/mammal_tracker or via their website: www.mammal.org.uk/mammal_tracker. Photographs, particularly those that show the face and feet, will help us to identify whether or not the animal is a polecat-ferret hybrid. Fresh carcasses without decay or maggots are also useful for genetic and rodenticide research. Please contact The Vincent Wildlife Trust via email@example.com or 01531 636441 who will be able to send a pre-paid postage box.
- European polecats (Mustela putorius) and are native to Britain.
- Hybridisation: the act or process of mating organisms of different varieties or species to create a hybrid.
- More information on the National Polecat Survey and on identifying polecats can be found at http://www.vwt.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/vwt-polecat-survey-leaflet.pdf
- The Mammal Society works at the interface of science, policy making and practice. As the only society with an interest in all British mammals, its mission is to provide the scientific evidence-base for effective conservation and management. It is currently conducting the official review of the conservation status and population size of British mammals for the English, Scottish and Welsh governments. Its Mammal Atlas, which tracks the change in mammal distribution over the last 20 years, will be published in 2016.
- The Vincent Wildlife Trust has been at the forefront of wildlife conservation for 40 years. Its work is focused on British and Irish mammals, particularly members of the weasel family (mustelids) and bats. It leads the National Polecat Survey and has tracked the changing fortunes of the species since 1993.