What is a Polecat?

A commonly asked question of the club, here is the factual information on what a Polecat is thanks to BBC Wales.


Polecats were common throughout much of Britain in 1800, but by 1915 they were hanging on for survival in their only remaining stronghold: mid Wales.

Heavy persecution by gamekeepers was responsible for this decline in polecat numbers, and continued until they were no longer perceived as a threat. Without the pressure of persecution, polecats were able to make a gradual recovery. A survey by the Vincent Wildlife Trust in the mid-nineties revealed that polecats had re-colonised much of Wales. They had crossed the border to the Midlands and were advancing east.

Polecats are continuing to reclaim their old territories in lowland Britain, but the lack of understanding about this recovery process has spurred the Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT) and Mammal Society into action. In 2004 they launched a 3 year polecat distribution survey which will map further changes in their range. Because most polecat sightings are limited to road casualties, these will form the basis of the survey. By examining the bodies, or good photographs of them, the experts are able to distinguish between polecats, the closely-related feral ferrets, and their hybrids.

What to watch out for:

Polecats are a member of the weasel family, weighing between 600-2kg, and measuring up to 46cm for the larger males, or 40cm for the females.

– They have long, slender bodies, which are covered with two layers of fur: a caramel-coloured under-fur, with a dark brown coat on top.

– White markings on the muzzle, eyes and rounded ears lighten their otherwise dark, blunt faces.

– They have short legs and a bushy tail.

Where to see:

Polecats are found all over Wales, including south of the M4 corridor and on Anglesey so have a ubiquitous range throughout Wales. Like otters, polecats are susceptible to traffic accidents, and there is a high density of roads in the area.

Polecats are primarily nocturnal, but when the young are born April/May time, the females hunting to feed young are more likely to be seen over the summer. Then newly independent young may be seen around September/October time.

They might be hunting voles or rabbits on roadside verges, or eating rats in outbuildings and barns in rural areas. You might even find a polecat den amongst straw bales.

Could be mistaken for:

Ferrets and polecats are very closely related and can be hard to tell apart. Ferrets come in many different colours, varying from albinos with pink eyes to dark brown fur, much like a pure polecat. When the two species interbreed, the resulting hybrids are even harder to distinguish.

The biggest differences are in behaviour. Unlike domesticated cats, which have been bred to be manageable but retain the desire to hunt mice and rats, ferrets have been bred to be tame. This killer instinct would be detrimental in domesticated ferrets, whose purpose was to flush rabbits out of the burrows. However, without it, they cannot survive for long in the wild.

Did you know?

Polecats mark their territories with the foul smell emitted from the scent-glands at the base of their tail. In Shakespearean times, the word ‘polecat’ was used to describe someone of equally unpleasant character.

Polecats were nicknamed in French ‘poule chat’, meaning ‘chicken cat’, because of their well-earned reputation for killing chickens. Don’t be fooled by the name, however, they bear no relation to cats.

Information Courtesy of BBC – Wales

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