(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…

ID: the Polecat is a larger relative of the stoat, mink and weasel and shares their slender-bodied appearance. Both male and female have a black coat with prominent yellow under fur (which is thicker and glossier in winter) but it’s the mask-like black-and-white banded facial markings that are its most distinctive feature; and one which generally distinguishes it from the hybrid Polecat-Ferret — a result of interbreeding with its domesticated cousin.
Mask-like black-and-white banded facial markings help to distinguish the Polecat from its hybridised Polecat-Ferret cousin (Frank Greenaway/Vincent Wildlife Trust)

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.

How Are They Doing?
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.
Polecat utilise the watercourses of the Weald Moors to move through the countryside (Frank Greenaway/Vincent Wildlife Trust)
On the Weald Moors: the Weald Moors is certainly in thrall to the Polecat’s great eastern expansion and individuals have been sighted across the area in the last decade, from Edgmond and Wall Farm to Donnington. As they move through the countryside, polecats often follow the courses of rivers, streams and ditches, so a twilight moorland bankside or two (and, let’s face it, there are many to choose from!) may well be worthy of further investigation. Winter is another time when they venture out in daylight hours, typically moving closer to ready sources of food around gardens and farms, while making dens in secluded locations such as log piles and haystacks.


Weald Moors Habitat: Rivers, Streams and Strines

Our thanks to the Vincent Wildlife Trust for giving permission to reproduce these images