(Frank Greenaway/Vincent Wildlife Trust)
European Polecat (Mustela putorius)
The Weald Moors wistful and serene landscape may not seem an obvious setting for a great leap forward. Yet, where Polecats are concerned, it most definitely is! This small predatory mammal (the largest of the Weasel family) was once heavily persecuted but is steadily moving eastwards again, with the moorlands right in the thick of the vanguard of progress…
In the Field: Polecat are found in practically every type of lowland habitat but often make use of linear features such as hedgerows, woodland edges and watercourses. While this opportunistic carnivore will feed on a wide variety of prey (including earthworms, voles, mice, bird eggs and, in wetland areas, amphibians) its most important source of food is the wild rabbit, which forms around 85% of its diet in the English Midlands. Within their individual territories, polecats will also take over rabbit burrows for use as dens, where they spend their days resting-up. A solitary animal, the male takes no part in the raising of young after the breeding season is over, which occurs between March and May. Although they are primarily nocturnal (and most active around dusk) midsummer is a time when females will hunt in daylight to provide food for their growing kits.
That the Polecat has only recently begun to recover in England and Wales owes much to heavy game-related culling in the Nineteenth Century, when the population was reduced to a rump centred on Mid-Wales and the Shropshire and Herefordshire borders. While the Marches and central England still form this species main range, the population has gradually been expanding eastwards since the mid-Twentieth Century and is now thinly distributed across a much wider area. Although they don’t really have any natural predators, many young polecats (which are independent after three months) become the victims of road fatalities in autumn and early winter, a time when they disperse to set-up their own home ranges.