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.
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.’
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.