The polecat, one of the rarest mammals in the country, are members of the mustelid family of small carnivores and spend most of their nights hunting. Polecats, not to be confused with ferrets or polecat-ferrets, are characterized by dark brown or black guard hairs and yellow underfur. They have a pale face and can be distinguished by the black band across their eyes. Polecats have small white-rimmed ears and round black eyes. Their body is long and slender, with short legs and a short tail.
Polecats are a secretive, nocturnal species, doing most of their hunting at night. They prey mainly on rabbits, though may also hunt rodents, amphibians, birds and earthworms. Due to their slim build, polecats can hunt rabbits within their burrows. They often line old rabbit burrows with dry grass and use them as a den. Polecats are solitary animals, that occupy and patrol individual territories. These territories can be up to a hundred hectares for males, and slightly smaller for females. They prefer hedgerows and woodland edge, but may also be found in grassland, farmland and urban areas such as gardens.
The polecat breeds in early spring. Male polecats will drag females around by the scruff of the neck for up to an hour before mating. This behaviour stimulates the release of eggs to increase the chances of fertilization. Polecats give birth to five to ten kits after a gestation period of approximately forty days. Kits remain with their mothers for two to three months to learn how to hunt before becoming independent.
- Length: 32-45cm plus a 12-19cm tail
- Weight: 0.5-2kg
Polecats are a priority species of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, meaning they are threatened and conservation actions must be taken in order to protect them. They are currently protected from predator control, unless specifically licensed, and the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 prevents anyone from harming them. This species is making a comeback from extinction in Scotland, and conservationists hope its success will continue in the future.
The polecat is still rare in Scotland. They are present in Argyll, Caithness and Perthshire, and may be able to recolonize the rest of Scotland in the future.
When to see
- Polecats have scent glands under their tails that produce a pungent odour.
- The name polecat is said to have derived from the French “poulet-chat” meaning chicken-cat, as they have commonly preyed on farmers’ chickens in the past.
- Polecats are believed to have gone extinct in Scotland in the early 1900s as a result of over-hunting and control by gamekeepers. However, they were rediscovered in the early 2000s, likely due to a covert reintroduction.