The Vincent Wildlife Trust yesterday produced a report which showed how the polecat has naturally spread from its former 19th century stronghold in Wales back into much of England and parts of Scotland. Formerly the animal which is related to weasels, stoats and pine martins was a common animal across the UK but persecution by Victorian gamekeepers meant that they were eradicated from all of the country except for an enclave in rural mid Wales. You can read more about the polecat work of the Vincent Wildlife Trust here.
Polecat – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
I have written about polecats on Dartmoor and in Devon before – see here and here. At the time there was some uncertainty whether they were polecats for feral polecat ferrets. The map for polecat distribution from 2000 did not show them living in Devon.
The new work updates the distribution map as follows
I have coined the expression ‘ghosts in the landscape’ – species now extinct in the countryside only now present in our memories. The polecat was a ghost in the landscape but is now back.
Its great to hear of a positive conservation story and it is interesting that the polecats returned under their own steam – they were not re-introduced.
So what other ‘ghosts in the landscape’ are there in Devon? There are lots but here are a couple of examples – pine marten and red squirrel. The pine martin is making a bit of a comeback in certain parts of the country and is being re-introduced into Wales. Maybe in due course the pine marten will return to Devon (it went extinct in the late 1800s, again as a result of Victorian gamekeepers). If it does return it might offer the prospect of the return of the red squirrel (which died out in the 1950s). Pine martens are very good predators of grey squirrels – the species that ousted the reds.
The Vincent Wildlife Trust is an excellent mammal conservation charity and was set up by Vincent Weir who was in the shipping business. He was a millionaire and supported many conservation causes throughout this life. He sadly died in 2014. I was fortunate to meet him in the mid 1980s when I was Director of Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. I met him in his City offices and he was kind enough to donate some money to the Trust so that we could carry out a substantial management review which saved the day as at that time we were finding the going tough! He was a quiet but generous man who later in his life focused his efforts into the Vincent Wildlife Trust which has subsequently done so much great work on pine martins, polecats, otters and bats. There is a lovely tribute to Vincent Weir on the website of the VWT – see here.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about polecats around East Dartmoor – see here. Since then my colleague Mick Jones, the Lead Ranger for North Dartmoor told me that he had seen a couple of dead polecats on the A38 near Ashburton and collected the corpse of one of them. He has subsequently skinned the animal and prepared the skull as a specimen.
Frontal view showing the teeth
I was surprised how solid and how heavy the skull actually was
Top view – apparently polecats have a great deal of muscle around the neck
It is of course sad to hear that polecats are being run over on our roads but it is an indication of how many of them there now are in the county. Lets hope they continue to flourish and expand in their range. I have also subsequently heard from an old friend of mine from SE Devon that polecats are frequent roadkills also in East Devon and West Dorset.
My colleague Dave Rickwood from the Woodland Trust recently sent me this picture of what he thought was a roadkill polecat and asked my opinion. I thought it was a polecat ferret opposed to a ‘proper’ polecat. He also consulted the Vincent Wildlife Trust for a second opinion (I suspect on reflection that I was the second opinion!) as they are carrying out a national polecat project.
Polecats are a native mammal and a member of the mustelid family which also includes weasels, stoats, pine martens, otters and badgers. They were exterminated in the 19th century by Victorian gamekeepers but a small population survived in Wales (in the same place that the red kite held on). It is thought that the polecat in Devon went extinct between 1880 and 1915. In recent decades they have begun to recover and have started to re-colonise England. I remember in the 1990s that the first polecat for a century was found in Northamptonshire where I was then working. Polecats are specialist rabbit hunters.
Photo taken on 1st October 2015 approx 5pm Location – Drewsteignton near Bowbeer Farm SX 719901
The Vincent Wildlife Trust have replied to Dave and have confirmed that it is indeed a polecat! Very exciting. The VWT weren’t overly excited so I think they must have other records from Devon in addition to this one. Dave found another ‘polecat’ 2 months earlier about 1km south of Cheriton Cross SX 781923 near to Haylake. So keep your eyes open for live animals or roadkills. If you find what looks like a roadkill polecat take photos and ideally put it in your freezer and then send it to the Vincent Wildlife Trust. For more information on polecats see here and for more information on the VWT’s polecat survey see here.
Here is a live polecat – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Always a good day when an extinct animal returns to Devon!