A pungent predicament

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Polecats have quietly been making a secretive but fragrant return, says wildlife writer Jane Adams – but there are hybrid hurdles to overcome

The polecat Mustela putorius is a native British mammal and a member of the mustelid (weasel) family.

Who hasn’t heard about the population recovery of otters? They’re now regularly seen in Dorset. However, another close cousin of the otter, the polecat, has also been making a much quieter comeback.
Polecats have been in mainland Britain since the end of the last ice age. These long, dark-brown mammals with short legs and a facemask of light and dark fur survive on a diet of rabbits, small mammals, amphibians and worms. They’re also nocturnal and secretive.
It’s not surprising they keep themselves to themselves. Over 300 years, we humans nearly wiped them from the map due to their supposed penchant for chickens and game birds. So much so that, by 1915, we had eradicated them from most of their British haunts. Only strongholds in Wales, Herefordshire and Shropshire remained. After the First World War, the end of commercial rabbit trapping and fewer predator controls meant they made a slow but steady recovery – and they’re spreading.

The English skunk
Less fussy about habitat and territories than badgers and pine martens, our hedgerows, rabbit warrens and woods are perfect hunting grounds for Dorset polecats. However, don’t expect to see one anytime soon – and, if you do, approach at your peril.
Their Latin name, Mustela putorius, means ‘foul-smelling musk bearer’. This refers to the smell they release from their anal glands as a defence mechanism when scared or hurt. It’s worth keeping your distance!
Sadly, the most likely place to see one is dead at the side of the roads which are now a major cause of mortality. Still, there are currently more polecats in the British Isles than at any other time in the last 100 years, which is good news, isn’t it? Yes … and no … and this is where it gets controversial.

Perceived as bloodthirsty animals, polecats were declared vermin during the reign of Elizabeth I and the name ‘polecat’ was used to refer to vagabonds.

Ferretcat or polerat?
Wild polecats will breed with their closest relative, the domesticated ferret, especially feral escapees. And, though there are visible differences, these hybrids are difficult to distinguish from pure polecats without DNA testing. This may not be the natural disaster it sounds. Some researchers have suggested polecats might have benefited from ferret genes.
So, rather than losing the species completely, the roguish, masked bandit has survived and is thriving, because it’s not in a completely pure state. It’s a tricky conservation conundrum and one that will no doubt rumble on for years to come.

Key visual differences between ferrets and polecats:

Polecat: Dark fur on the face extending to the nose. Pale cheek patches contrasting with its dark facial mask. No scattered white guard hairs over its body. No pale throat patch (or less than 50mm long). Dark fur on paws.
Ferret: Dark fur on the face that does not reach the nose. Pale cheek patches, often extensive, that contrast poorly with its darker facial mask. Scattered white guard hairs over the entire body, especially its hindquarters and tail. Pale throat patch 50mm or more long and one or more white paws.

More info:
Earlham Institute on the hybridisation quandary (a very similar hybridisation problem is seen between Scottish wildcats and domesticated cats)
vincentwildlifetrust.org.uk

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