Polecats Mustela putorius have the typical long Mustelid shape with a creamy under fur overlain by a rich dark brown guard fur. Ear margins are white and the white chin patch extends onto the muzzle and cheeks. The face has a distinctive dark mask around the eyes. There is a big variation between summer and winter coat colour with the lighter under coat more apparent in the winter, which may lead to mistaken identity with its domesticated form, the Ferret Mustela furo (Harris and Yalden, 2008).
Polecats show sexual dimorphism in size, males being much bigger than females. Body length varies between 450 mm for a large male to 318 mm for a small female, with an additional tail length of between 125 mm and 165 mm. Weight varies from 1930 g for a very large male to 500 g for a small female. In the wild Polecats probably live between four and five years (Harris and Yalden, 2008).
Opportunistic in their tastes, Polecats take a wide range of prey items, including small mammals, birds, amphibians and fish, with Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus dominating in lowland England. They can be found over a wide range of habitats. Often associated with wetlands and riparian habitats they are also closely associated with rolling mixed countryside and lowland farmland. Areas with hedgerows, stone walls, farm buildings, good prey populations and plenty of cover are favoured. There is a strong relationship with farms and farm buildings in the winter months, for cover and available rodent prey, which may lead to secondary rodenticide poisoning, possibly inhibiting range expansion (Harris and Yalden, 2008).
Individual home range characteristics are variable according to season, habitat, prey availability, sex and social status. Breeding females settle into discrete home ranges; breeding males and juveniles are more mobile, with fluid home range boundaries with several den sites in each; Rabbit burrows are often used. Millais (1905) quotes Thomas Farrell, describing the dens of Polecats in northeast Northumberland as having two parts, one part lined for the rearing of young and the other a storehouse for food.
The Polecat is a seasonal breeder with one litter per year with between 5-10 kits born usually in May or June. Kits are born in secure dens with Rabbit warrens a favoured location. They are weaned at three weeks and independent between two and three months old (Harris and Yalden, 2008).
Mortality on the roads is often the first indication that Polecats have returned to an area. Their ferocity and smell protect adult Polecats from most predators although they are sometimes killed by dogs and possibly foxes and large birds of prey. Most mortality in the UK is due to humans either through road kill or trapping (Harris and Yalden, 2008).
The Polecat is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and in 2007 was added to the list of UK Biodiversity Action Plan mammals, protected as species of principal importance for the conservation of biological diversity in England under Section 74 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
The Polecat was formerly more widespread in the UK but now has a much restricted range following persecution in the 19th and early 20th centuries for game preservation. Its past distribution is evidenced by place names such as Foulmart (Polecat) Knowe (hill) and Foumart Law in Northumberland; the old English prefix “foul” referring to the unpleasant powerful scent it emits when frightened or angry. According to Harting (1886), during the Middle Ages Polecat skins were exported under the name of “sable” from Newcastle upon Tyne but there is debate over whether the text refers to importation rather than exportation.
It appears in early parish lists as vermin for which bounty was paid, for example in Durham in 1743, Witton Gilbert Parish paid out two shillings and four pence for three foulmarts, and in 1733 Stanhope Parish paid out for six foulmarts, two shillings; two foulmarts, eight pence; and three foulmarts, one shilling.
Mennell and Perkins (1864) state it was then still plentiful in both counties and quote Wallis: “it is found in Northumberland in stony hillocks, in thickets and furze, near villages and farm houses, and is usually called Fou’mart because of its intolerable scent”. In Durham they state that “The Rev. G. C. Abbes tells us that a very fine Polecat visited his garden at Cleadon a few years ago, and was so bold and fearless that it came close to him when gardening, and suffered him to push it back with his rake when it interfered with his work” (possibly a Ferret?). Fawcett (1911) contains text by Thomas Gatiss including: “a Polecat was got in a quarry on Mountsett Fell by a quarryman in 1860 and another was shot on the Pontop Hall estates by Joseph Watson, woodman in 1872 or 1873.” Both of these locations are near Dipton in north Durham. The Victoria History of the County of Durham (Page, 1905) suggests that the animal had only been exterminated from the county in the last 10 or 12 years, suggesting a late 19th-turn of the 20th-century local extinction. Yalden (1999) suggests that by 1915 the Polecat was probably extinct in the northeast of England.
However Bolam (1934) records some late North East Polecats, including a keeper’s tale of Polecats being common enough in a place about 15 miles west of Bishop Auckland around 1901-02 for the keeper to have a large rug made from their skins (one wonders what it smelled like). He quotes Mr George Wright of Fourstones who claimed to have killed three in the autumn of 1917 whilst rabbit trapping at Broken Haugh, near Haydon Bridge. His latest records include one seen on the road at Brunton Bank near Stagshaw, Northumberland, in 1921 and a Polecat killed by a dog at Bishopley Junction in Weardale in December 1919 (Bolam, 1920). He believed this to be one of the last of the indigenous Polecats (due to the pungent smell and the animal’s ferocity), but he does acknowledge the possibility of confusion with the domestic form of the Polecat, the Ferret, in these later records.
Commonly used for hunting rabbits, Ferrets can exist as feral populations and they can interbreed with Polecats producing a joining of the two forms of the same species, although selection in the wild strongly favours the Polecat phenotype. There are probably therefore many wild Polecats carrying Ferret genes, but because of the close relationship between the two forms and the apparent dominance of the Polecat form, they are not a major threat to the Polecat’s genetic integrity (Johnny Birks, pers. comm. to Terry Coult, 2012). Records of Polecat post-1900 must therefore be tempered with caution as by this time the indigenous Polecat, if still present, was most probably functionally extinct.
Re-introductions since 1970 have re-established the Polecat in parts of Scotland and England including Cumbria (Harris and Yalden, 2008). The Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT) has monitored the spread of the Polecat and carried out genetic testing of Polecat corpses in an attempt to understand the spread of the Polecat and the role of the feral Ferret, in Polecat recovery. The Cumbrian population is the most probable source of the recovering Polecat population in the North East but is classed as having relatively low purity due to the abundance of Ferrety hybrids in the population (Birks, 2008). The Northumbria Mammal Group newsletter of Autumn/Winter, 1999-2000 (Gough and Hooton, 2000) records an early record from Lambley in Northumberland, found by Colin Simms in September 1997. A male Polecat killed near Staindrop in south Durham in 1998 (Birks and Kitchener, 1999) was found to be a first generation Polecat/Ferret hybrid and it is likely that many reported North East Polecats carry the Ferret gene.
Understanding of Polecat distribution is therefore clouded by the presence of dark feral Ferret populations and the unregistered reintroduction of Polecats to former parts of its range. Current understanding of distribution probably does not reflect the true distribution of Polecats; it is more likely an indication of limited recorder effort and the very recent interest in the recording of Polecats in the region.
Today it appears the animal is making a welcome comeback. Kevin O’Hara recalls watching a large Polecat kill a Rabbit beneath Cauldron Snout in Teesdale in the early 1990s, and his recovery of a carcass from the road east of Haydon Bridge in 2004 was confirmed as a Polecat by VWT. Kits (young) have been recorded at Allenbanks in 2010 and at Bardon Mill, Fourstones and Corbridge in 2011.
Both Northumberland and Durham Wildlife Trusts continue to get a steady stream of reports and sightings from the region. Some of the more recent records have been photographs of an animal in a live Rabbit trap from Allendale in 2010, and in squirrel traps near Hexham and Haltwhistle in early 2012, and an animal on Waldridge Fell near Chester-le-Street in July 2012. A Ferret rescue centre at Prudhoe has also had several young suspected Polecat orphans which on maturing have been unmanageable and very, very smelly.
Written by Terry Coult and Kevin O’Hara (Last updated Nov 12)