Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Extinction Special: The changing fortunes of the European polecat

  • Written by  Estelle Hakner
  • Published in Wildlife
Extinction Special: The changing fortunes of the European polecat Shutterstock
22 Aug
2016
Nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century, the wild carnivore is now making a welcome comeback for farmers in the UK

The European polecat used to be thought of as no more than a pest. Its appetite for small birds put it on the hit lists of gamekeepers across the UK in the 1900s, and the species was persecuted to such a degree that it was nearly extinguished in Britain last century. But the tides have turned: farmers now recognise the usefulness of the polecat for managing pest levels, and populations are on the rise across Suffolk, Norfolk, South Yorkshire and Cumbria.

With its bandit-like facemask, inquisitive expression and weasel-like body, the polecat, or Mustela putorious, used to be a familiar sight in Britain. An estimated 110,055 existed during the Mesolithic period, but by 1915 it was virtually extinct in the UK, due to the rise of sporting estates and game keeping throughout the 19th century. Hunted, caught and killed using lethal gin traps, the polecat withdrew its stronghold to remote, rural areas in Wales and Scotland, becoming a rare wildlife sighting in mainland Britain for some 100 years.

polecat1The European polecat is considered useful at hunting pests and vermin (Image: Shutterstock)

According to a recent survey by the Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT), the polecat has made a triumphant comeback across much of Britain. Natural populations in Wales, Scotland and the West Midlands, and reintroduced groups in Cumbria, Perthshire and Angus remain strong. The polecat has also expanded into southwest England, East Anglia, western Northumberland, the eastern Yorkshire Dales and Dumfriesshire, though urbanisation and road traffic has prevented the species from spreading into northern England.

‘The polecat is one of our native carnivores that almost became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century, along with the pine marten and wildcat,’ says Lizzie Croose, mustelid conservation officer at the VWT. ‘For the polecat to recover from almost being on the brink of extinction, to being widespread in Wales and much of central and southern England, is a real conservation success.’

A generational shift in attitudes towards hunting and conservation have certainly helped polecat populations in the UK, and the species’ recovery has been largely aided by governmental action: ‘The polecat’s initial population recovery was driven by a reduction in trapping pressure in the early 20th century,’ says Croose. ‘This was followed by the termination of gin trapping in the 1950s and, latterly, the legal protection afforded to the polecat under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. An increase in the species’ main prey, rabbits, following the myxomatosis epidemic, is also likely to have contributed.’

polecat3While polecat numbers are back on the rise, it still faces danger (Image: Shutterstock)

Though the future looks promising, the road to recovery is not smooth for the downtrodden polecat. Wildlife recorders have seen an increase in polecat-ferret hybrids (which have a lower conservation value than pure polecats) in some parts of the UK, which could put the species at risk of genetic extinction.

Polecats are also being killed through secondary poisoning (by eating poisoned rats) and by getting caught in indiscriminate traps. If the species is to survive, experts such as Croose say these anthropogenic threats must be managed, else we could see the polecat relegated to the remotest corners of Britain once more.

For more on the topic of extinction, pick up Geographical’s special themed September 2016 issue, on sale now.

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Geophoto

Prepare to be inspired, startled and filled with awe in…

Climate

Excessive use of nitrogen-based fertilisers is contributing to numerous environmental…

Energy

A group of scientists from Edinburgh University has come up…

Geophoto

​This year’s winning environmental photographs show the impacts of the…

Wildlife

A WWF report has revealed that global forest vertebrate populations…

Climate

Yesterday saw one of the biggest public protest movements in…

Climate

On the eve of millions of world citizens going on…

Wildlife

Around 75 million birds are kept as pets in Indonesia,…

Wildlife

Migratory animals are actively adjusting their traditions to cope with…

Climate

How many trees can you plant in a day?

Polar

New analysis of NASA data has led to the discovery…

Climate

Naomi Klein is back and calling for a new world…

Geophoto

The move away from film has meant more pictures being…

Oceans

As the ocean looks set to get busier due to…

Climate

A report details how tropical storms are fuelling the rise…

Wildlife

After years of trials, talks, tweaks and test runs, EarthRanger…

Climate

Nationalism might gain political points in certain parts of the…

Geophoto

With guaranteed sunshine, bright blue skies and not a hint…

Oceans

A review of coral-saving methods is helping communities decide which…

Polar

A seven-year study of Patagonia’s ice sheets has revealed the…