27 March 1998

After a century in limbo polecats are coming back

THE resurgence of any species in an area where it has been virtually extinct for almost a century, is a reason for celebration among wildlife experts. But the natural return of the polecat to lowland areas of England is one that conservationists hope farmers will welcome too.

Farmers and gamekeepers have not been too friendly to the polecat in the past. They would kill it to protect their poultry and game birds and although once common all over Britain, it had been hunted out of England by 1880 and by 1915 could only be found in west Wales. However, rabbits are the polecats main prey and with the population explosion of this pest the return of the polecat can only be of advantage to farmers.

Reduced persecution and the rise in rabbit numbers have allowed the polecat to recolonise Wales and it has filtered back into bordering counties. But they are still pretty thin on the ground, so gamekeepers too can afford to tolerate them. Poultry keepers will find that the measures they already employ to keep predators away from their fowls, such as shutting them up in secure housing at night, will be effective against polecats too.

"The polecat is listed on Schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and it is illegal to trap it without a licence," says Becky Palmer of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust*. She is monitoring the recolonisation of that county by the creature and is encouraging people to report sightings. "Polecats are unpredictable, shy, nocturnal opportunists, so they are not something you happen across very often," says Becky. "Their habitat is hedgerows and field margins and they are sometimes found in farm buildings where they take rats and mice."

&#42 Confusing identity

Positive identification can be difficult as they are sometimes confused with similar members of the weasel family, particularly feral ferrets and mink. Polecats are bigger than stoats and weasels, fiercer than domesticated ferrets, not as darkly coated as mink, and smaller than martens and otters. They will breed with ferrets and the resultant hybrids can even put an expert to the test when it comes to identifying them from a true polecat.

The polecat varies in size from 45 to 60cm (18 to 24in) long and has short legs. It has a white marking over the eyes, on the ears and round its nose which has a dark stripe. Its throat and chest are black. The dark coat has a yellow under-fur that is more noticeable in winter.

Becky has a stuffed polecat on her desk. "We know this is a true one because Johnny Birks of the Vincent Wildlife Trust** identified it. The VWT initiated conservation studies on the polecat in 1993 and he is the expert," she says.

This polecat met its demise on a road near Nantwich. "A lady out walking her dog at midnight saw two or three running across the road and this one was hit by a juggernaut. Her dog picked it up and carried it home and she put it in her freezer and called us. We had it identified and stuffed," explains Becky. Identified road casualties are an unfortunate but certain way of knowing this elusive creature is back in Cheshire.

A national live trapping survey carried out by the VWT, in partnership with other organisations, has also proved conclusively that the polecat is making a comeback in the Midlands and as far east as Oxford and Northampton. There are also new populations in the north-west of England and the West Highlands of Scotland which are thought to have grown from private reintroductions or escapes. Reintroductions are also becoming established on the Chilterns and in Wilts, Hants and Dorset and the VWT would like to hear of any sightings outside these areas.

&#42 Raising profile

In Cheshire, Becky would be pleased to hear of sightings and continues to work to raise the profile of the polecat in the county. "I would also like to talk to farmers about land management as an environment for small mammals," she says.

Tessa Gates

*Cheshire Wildlife Trust (01270-610180).**Vincent Wildlife Trust (0171-2832089).

Becky Palmer is monitoring the recolonisation of Cheshire by the polecat and is encouraging people to report sightings of this unpredictable creature.