Polecat

This mustelid is the original ancestor of the domestic ferret, and will hybridize with escaped ferrets, resulting in offspring that are usually paler in colour.

This solitary and nocturnal animal hunts rodents, birds, reptiles and insects, mostly on the ground. The offensive secretions from the polecat's anal scent glands are used for defence and to mark territory.

European polecats are the wild form of ferrets. This form is rare in the British Isles but is found across all forested areas of continental Europe. A large population of feral polecats has also formed in New Zealand. Male polecats are up to twice the size of females. Polecats prey on burrowing animals such as rabbits and rodents. Ferrets were originally bred to flush out or kill rabbits that had gone to ground. Domestic ferrets are inquisitive and affectionate and can be house trained. As a result they make good pets. They sleep for about 18 hours a day, so require less attention than other domestic animals.

The case of the polecat provides a remarkable conservation success story, and confirms its adaptability. Having been wiped out over much of its range in Britain by trapping, it has since recolonized large tracts of its former habitat, after being protected. Consequently, the area over which polecats now occur has increased by 50 per cent in just 10 years, and the population has risen more than four-fold during this period. Polecats prefer areas close to water, hunting under cover of darkness.

Distribution: Europe (apart from Ireland), north to southern Scandinavia, and south to the Mediterranean, with a small North African population. Also present in western Asia.

Habitat: Forest.

Weight: 0.7 - 1.7 kg (1.5 - 3.75 lb); males are heavier.

Length: 47 - 70 cm (19 - 28 in).

Maturity: 12 months.

Gestation Period: 40 - 42 days; mating occurs between February and June.

Breeding: 5 - 8; weaning occurs at around 4 weeks.

Food: primarily carnivorous, hunting small mammals, particularly voles, rabbits and rats, as well as frogs and toads.

Lifespan: 3 - 5 years; up to 10 years in captivity.

Colouration

The outer fur is dark brown, and the undercoat is a pale shade of yellow.

Facial appearance

A distinctive dark mask extends across the face, covering the eyes; the background colour is whitish.

Legs

Legs are short and usually darker than the body. The feet are powerful and equipped with sharp claws.

Tail

The tail is quite long and dark in colour.

FOOD STORE

Polecats occupy a den, often close to water, where they may accumulate a store or so-called "pantry" of dead frogs.

Gallery of Polecat