Polecats may be on the prowl near you - have you seen one of these nocturnal visitors which are making a comeback?

Polecat - picture by Frank Greenaway.
Polecat - picture by Frank Greenaway.

A wildlife charity plotting the spread of the once threatened polecat say they are spreading across eastern counties, including Bedfordshire.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT) is asking the public to help plot the path of the polecat.

Polecats, once absent from much of the British countryside, appear to be doing well and now The Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT) has launched a national survey to find out how far polecats have spread across Britain.

Lizzie Croose, the VWT’s project co-ordinator, said: “We are asking members of the public to help us plot the polecat’s distribution by sending in records of polecat sightings, dead or alive, collected during 2014 and 2015,” said “Where possible, we would like records to be backed up with a photograph.”

The VWT is keen to receive records from all over Britain, but especially from eastern and northern counties to help gauge the extent to which polecats have spread into these areas since the trust’s last national survey 10 years ago.

The polecat is one of our least-known mammals. It is a member of the weasel family and the wild ancestor of the ferret. Polecats are generally dark in colour with paler underfur; the most striking feature is the bandit-like mask of dark and light fur on its face. They like to inhabit farmland and enjoy a diet of rabbits and rats, but they are nocturnal and so rarely seen.

The polecat was once common across Britain but historical persecution pushed them to the very brink of extinction, confining it to mid Wales and the Welsh borders by the end of the 19th century.

Today, the population is on the path to recovery, spreading across central and southern England with other populations in northern England and Scotland.

Some people may be lucky enough to glimpse a polecat running across the road, or even see one in their garden where they like to den under decking or sheds, but sadly the most common evidence of the presence of polecats is the bodies of animals killed on roads.

As well as sightings records, the VWT is also keen to receive the carcasses of road casualty polecats for use in research.

Further details are available on the Trust’s website at www.vwt.org.uk.

If you see a polecat or feral ferret, please log your sighting by emailing enquiries@vwt.org.uk, calling 01531 636441 or visiting www.vwt.org.uk.

The polecat

The polecat is a native British mammal which probably colonised mainland Britain from continental Europe at the end of the last Ice Age. They were common and widespread until the 18th declined due to increased predator persecution associated with game shooting.

By 1915 the polecat had been eradicated from most of its British range and confined to mid-Wales, with low numbers in Herefordshire and Shropshire. Reduced persecution following the First World War led to a slow recovery in polecat numbers and the population has now recolonised much of its former range in central and southern England. Populations have been recorded in Cumbria, Argyll, Perthshire and Caithness, which are believed to result from polecat reintroductions since the 1970s.

The polecat is a nocturnal predator that feeds on a wide range of prey. Wild rabbits are a most important food, comprising 85% of the diet of polecats in the English midlands. Most rabbits are killed underground in their burrows, where polecats prefer to rest during daylight.

Other prey includes rats, small mammals, amphibians, birds and earthworms.

Polecats in Britain are able to live in a wide range of landscapes, with no strong dependence upon a particular habitat. However, polecats are more numerous in lowland landscapes where food is more abundant than in the uplands. Provided there is sufficient prey, such as rabbits, polecats are able to thrive on open farmland. Radio-tracking has shown that polecats make particular use of hedgerows and woodland edges, and in winter they visit farmyards and farm buildings to hunt rodent prey. Polecats are capable of digging their own dens but they prefer to use existing sites such as rabbit burrows, hay stacks and log piles.

Polecats breed once a year. Mating takes place between March and May, and 4-6 ‘kits’ are born after a gestation of 42 days. Males play no part in rearing the young. Juvenile polecats are independent by the age of three months, with most dispersing in September to set up their own home ranges. Many die in their first year.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust

The Vincent Wildlife Trust is a national charity engaged in mammal research and conservation.

For more than 30 years, the Trust has made major contributions to the conservation of many of our rarer mammals, including the pine marten, otter, dormouse, water vole, polecat and the bats. Today, the Trust continues to concentrate on the needs of British and Irish mammals of conservation interest, with current work centred on the pine marten, polecat, stoat and the bats.

The Trust also manages nearly 40 nature reserves in England, Wales and Ireland, most of which are horseshoe bat roosts.