Plotting the Polecat’s Recovery

Logo: Vincent Wildlife Trust - National Polecat Survey

By Katherine Morley, Carnivore Conservation Officer

Polecat in the grass looking up at the camera
Polecat (Jane Parsons)

Akin to most of our other native carnivores, the polecat Mustela putorius is one of our least observed mammals in Britain. Once on the brink of extinction due to decades of relentless persecution that resulted in confinement to an area around Aberystwyth in mid-Wales by the early 1900s, the polecat has been quietly returning to its former ranges. Thanks to legal protection and a reduction in game keeping pressure, in recent years the polecat has been increasingly encountered across Wales and some areas of England, and its stronghold has now expanded beyond mid-Wales into the English midlands. There are also verified polecat records from further afield, from East Cornwall up to the southern regions of Northumberland. Although still considered rare in Scotland, the far southwest of England, and eastern and northern English counties, the polecat is certainly making a comeback, which Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT), a mammal research and conservation organisation, has been recording since the 1990s through its National Polecat Surveys.

A member of the mustelid family, the polecat lives a solitary, nocturnal and secretive lifestyle and can be difficult to study. The animal is not commonly encountered as it inhabits a variety of habitats, and does not excavate its own dens, which makes knowing where to look more difficult. Neither does it deposit scats in prominent places to be easily spotted during surveys. Instead, a main source of valuable data for polecats is from road traffic accidents reported by naturalists and members of the public (citizen or community scientists). In VWT’s 2014-2015 Polecat Survey, road casualties accounted for 51% of all records submitted.

Confused polecat stuck in a rabbit trap
A polecat captured and released from a rabbit trap in Norfolk (Barnaby Karlson-Evans)

VWT’s National Polecat Survey is undertaken approximately every ten years, providing comparable snapshots of the polecat’s distribution as the species expands into the former range it was once exterminated from. This current survey, the fourth National Polecat Survey launched at the beginning of 2024 will run until the end of 2025.

Polecats and Ferrets

Male polecats in the breeding season disperse to find mates and, as they travel further from their existing core range, may find themselves in areas with limited mating opportunities, instead finding escaped or feral ferrets to mate with. This has led to hybrid polecat-ferret individuals, particularly on the re-colonisation front, as previous VWT Polecat Surveys have demonstrated.

Although pelage characteristics can be used, it is quite difficult to distinguish between true polecats and polecat-ferret hybrids. There are various pale characteristics that are more associated with hybrids, but seasonal variations in coat add to the challenge. For more information on how to visually distinguish between true polecats and polecat-ferret hybrids, visit VWT’s website.

To add to identification complications, research has shown that polecat phenotype is not always a close match with genotype, and there are also relatively high levels of ferret genetics in the wild polecat population. Encouragingly, however, studies have also shown that the true polecats appear to be swamping out the ferrety genetic influences. True polecats have higher levels of fitness and looking more like a polecat may be advantageous if you wish to avoid being persecuted. Over time, we may therefore have a recovered polecat population that is genetically very different to the population that was once common and widespread across Britain, but still performing the same ecological functions.

A dead polecat on the side of the road
A road casualty polecat found in Cilgerren, Wales. Hair and whisker samples were retrieved and contributed to VWT’s National Polecat Survey (Esther Burge)

National Polecat Survey 2024-2025

VWT’s National Polecat Survey is appealing for sightings of polecats in 2024-2025 to be reported in a nationwide citizen science data collection effort. VWT collects these sightings directly and will also share records between other organisations such as iNaturalist, and the Mammal Society’s Mammal Mapper App.

If you see a polecat-type animal (polecat, suspected hybrid polecat-ferret or ferret) during the survey period of 2024-2025, VWT would like to hear from you. This includes living and dead animals, trapped animals, and animals captured on trail cameras.

To take part in the survey, please submit sightings with the location (grid reference) to VWT – details below – along with photographs and videos, or detailed descriptions of the animal’s features, to help us verify the sighting.

Samples from Deceased Polecats

VWT is also appealing for samples of hair and whiskers from dead polecats and hybrids for research purposes. Genetic tests can be undertaken on hair samples, and stable isotope analysis of whiskers can reveal important information about diet. If you find a dead polecat and are happy to collect samples on our behalf, please contact VWT for instructions using the enquiries email. As many dead polecats are found on roads, please only collect samples if it is safe to do so and do not put yourself or others at risk.

VWT is particularly interested in sightings and samples from the edge of the polecat’s range – the far south, east and north of England and Scotland.

How to submit sightings or contact VWT’s National Polecat Survey:

Online: Submit directly through our website
Phone: 01531 636441

Follow the National Polecat Survey on Facebook and X(Twitter) @PolecatSurvey

Find out more on VWT’s website — Polecat Survey 2024-2025

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Posted On: 09/05/2024

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