Member of the mustelid family. Long body with short legs, with a short tail (around half its body length). Males are larger than females, with average weights being 0.8-1.9kg and 0.5-1.1kg respectively. Coat is two-tone; their guard hairs range from dark brown to black and cover a lighter coloured underfur. Its face is dark with white stripes or patches, giving it a “bandit mask” around the eyes.
Wide European distribution, Ural Mountains in Russia being the easternmost boundary of their range. Absent from Ireland, northern Scandinavia and the Balkans. Also found in Morocco (northern Africa).
Wide variety of habitats across its range. Do well in woodlands, farmlands, grasslands, forest edges, urban areas and gardens, as well as sand dunes and marshes. Tend to avoid mountainous regions. Preference for farmland with hedgerows and woodland edges.
For most populations, rabbits are an important food source for polecats, particularly in summer. They are slender enough to chase rabbits into their warrens to catch them, so are specialised to underground predation. However, they are a generalist predator, and will readily eat rodents (from rats to voles), amphibians, birds and even carrion.
Much less territorial than other mustelids, with animals of the same sex often sharing their home ranges, and these territories vary in size depending on habitat and food abundance. Territory borders are marked and defended with piles of scats, produced also with a pungent repellent scent. They use dens, normally in rabbit burrows. In winter when the weather is harsher, they are known to den in hay bales, under shed and in rubbish tips. When hunting, they have been known to paralyse their prey in order to store, keep fresh and consume later.
Historically regarded as a pest of poultry and was hunted due to this as well as for its fur. Massive declines started in the 19th century, which eventually left the population dwindling at around 5,000 animals, mainly restricted to Wales. There have been a number of reintroductions in the 1970s and 80s, which has resulted in population increases within the UK. The polecat is consequently protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and was added to the list of UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) mammals in 2007; a status that offers protection and conservation plans in order to halt or reverse their decline.
The drastic declines polecats suffered in the 19th century, which almost led to their extermination within the UK, was down to hunting for their furs and predator persecution by game keepers. The wide scale reduction in hedgerows within the UK is also effecting population recovery. There is also evidence that prey numbers greatly effect polecat numbers, especially when disease epidemics like myxomatosis in rabbits occur. Introduced predators such as American mink have been shown to drive declines in numbers of polecats. Hybridisation with wild-living domestic ferrets is a big problem, particular on islands.
At Wildwood you can see our polecats by the badger enclosure. If they are not out playing (chase and play-wrestling are favourites!), you can see them asleep all together in a pile in their dens.
Did you know?
Ancestors of the domestic ferret. Domesticated over 2000 years ago to hunt animals classed as “vermin” (rabbits and rats).