Recent recording efforts have resulted in many records being submitted of polecat-ferrets, often with markings extremely close to pure polecats. The hotspot for these records is North East Cornwall, especially around Stoke Climsland. Most records are road kills, a female with 3 kits were found dead by the side of the A30 at Jamaica Inn. One record was from an animal killed by a dog, and one report was of a group of 6 individuals crossing a road (and safely making it to the other side).
The polecat is a priority species under the UK BAP and is protected under Schedule
6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. It is illegal to deliberately trap them
without a licence. Heavily persecuted by gamekeepers, the polecat was confined to the wilds of northern Wales by the early 20th century. Polecats have now dispersed widely, with some informal re-introductions, and are starting to appear in the south west. The first confirmed Cornish polecat record in many years was recently submitted from Lostwithiel.
Recent efforts to increase reporting of polecats and ferrets in Cornwall have produced good evidence of populations of polecat/ferret hybrids in the north-east. A record of an apparently pure polecat was submitted from Lostwithiel in early 2012 and another from just across the Tamar in Devon; both were road
casualties indicating that the species is spreading eastwards from Dorset and Devon.
No specific methods are available although extensive work has been done with radio-tracking. Footprints and scats cannot be used to discriminate between polecats, feral ferrets, and mink. Camera traps may be suitable in some environments but actual specimens are necessary to confirm the presence of polecats in Cornwall. Most records are road casualties or occasional live sightings of this inquisitive animal.
Polecats have a long, dark body and short legs. The small head has rounded ears and a blunt face. Beneath the dark fur is a buff/ grey underfur which is more obvious in the
winter, when the shoulders and rump appear
quite pale. The face has a distinctive ‘bandit’ mask of dark fur around the eyes with a pale forehead and cheek patches. The ear tips are also white. As with many of the weasel family, the male is much larger than the female. Mature males weigh up to 1.9 kg and females up to 1.1 kg. Males are 450-600 mm long, females 450-550 mm, about 25% of which is the bushy tail.
It is very difficult to discriminate between a polecat and its domestic cousin the ferret (Mustela furo), especially where feral ferrets have the polecat-type coat. Polecats are generally dark, especially in the summer, and do not have white feet or extensive pale chest fur. The dark mask extends all the way to the dark nose. The similarly sized American mink is uniform in colour with no facial markings. Because of the potential for confusion with feral ferrets, records can only be confirmed in Cornwall if the specimen is available for expert inspection.
Polecats are nocturnal hunters, searching for their prey in woods, scrub, riverside, and farmland margins. They are opportunistic carnivores feeding mainly on rabbits and small rodents but also taking frogs, birds, and occasionally domestic poultry or game birds. Prey may be stored when excess is available. In the winter polecats often move into farmyards in search of rats and mice. Polecats are solitary and occupy large home ranges, varying with gender and season, moving between 4 or 5 dens, often in old rabbit warrens.
Polecats breed in early spring and 5-10 kits are born in May/June. There is no delayed implantation. The blind, white kits weigh 10 g at birth and are fully grown by autumn. Juveniles disperse at 2-3 months of age, 80% of them dying before reproducing. Polecats may live for 15 years in captivity but 4-5 years is more typical in the wild.
Adult polecats have few natural predators, most being repelled by their powerful scent
and ferocious nature. Dogs, foxes and raptors occasionally kill polecats but most deaths occur as a result of trapping or traffic. Polecat fur (known as fitch) is in demand in some areas of the world and trapping for fur was once important in the UK. Secondary poisoning from farmyard rodents may also be important.
Tracks and Trails:
Droppings, or scats, are up to 70 mm long and 5-9 mm wide. They include fur, bone
and feathers and have a strong musky odour when fresh. Scats are often left inconspicuously in a latrine close to the den. It is not possible to discriminate polecat scats from those of mink or feral ferret. Footprints are similar to those of the mink and the feral ferret.
Did you know?:
The old English name for the polecat is foumart or foulmart, referring to its
unpleasant smell, as opposed to the sweetmart (the pine marten). Polecats were probably domesticated around the Mediterranean about 2000 years ago, giving rise to the domestic ferret.
© David Chapman
© Chris Robbins