I am indebted to David Graham of Knighton-on-Teme for the photograph accompanying this month’s article. Thanks are also due for the idea for this article and permission to use his image to promote the Teme Valley Wildlife Group. Although rarely seen, there are plenty of polecats about in the Teme Valley because Wales and its adjoining counties are the most likely places in Britain to spot them. Elusive and wary they keep out of sight but often live quite close to humans, particularly to farms.
Sometimes they can be mistaken for other animals, particularly the wild ferret and the similar-sized but non-native mink. The polecat’s characteristic feature is a mask of dark fur on an otherwise pale face which gives a ‘Dick Turpin-esque’ quality to its physiognomy. Ferrets are domesticated polecats, bred from way back in time for use as rabbit-catchers, and when these animals escape captivity and start to breed in the wild they gradually revert to native polecat colouring. Whilst half-way there, the paler furred “polecat-ferrets” lack the spectacle-like mask. Meanwhile, mink have dark chocolate-brown fur but lack any facial markings.
I have seen polecats on a number of occasions over the years but sadly none of them have looked well. I was once drawn to the odd behaviour of my trio of sheep who stopped to look at something then ran away, then returned for another look, then ran off again. On investigation the cause of their agitation was a not verywell-looking polecat which was out and about in broad daylight and looking distinctly under the weather. It retreated into woodland not to be seen again. My other sightings have been of dead polecats, all come to grief on the A443 between Lindridge Church and Newnham Bridge. Happily, I know that other people spot them alive and well, often on wildlife cameras set up in their gardens.
Polecats have traditionally been unpopular with poultry-keepers and game-keepers and in the past were the objects of persecution. Bounties were once placed on their heads, along with other “vermin”, and old churchwardens’ accounts sometimes record the sums paid out for killing them. Until 1850 they were widespread across Britain but by 1915 had become confined to their present range. They feed on rabbits, rodents, perching birds, frogs, carrion and large insects. Once the hob and Jill have got together the female finds a suitable hollow to give birth and the young are called kittens, the same names as their domesticated counterparts.
I think that they are very attractive looking animals although like all mustelids they are capable of emitting strong aromas, a fact that apparently protected them from being trapped for their fur. Keep a look-out and you too may be lucky enough to see one, or, like David, take a great photograph.