The polecat

David Chapman / 09 May 2016

David Chapman introduces the polecat, the domestic ferret's wild cousin whose numbers are now rising thanks to conservation efforts.



The European polecat (Mustela putorius) has a long and confusing history in the UK, this because it has been overwhelmingly persecuted by humans whilst at the same time it has been domesticated by us for the last 2000 years. It seems we can’t decide whether to love or hate them!

Related: six tips for a wildlife-friendly garden

What is a polecat?

The polecat is a member of the mustelid family of mammals so the polecat is closely related to the stoat, weasel, pine marten and otter to name but a few. The polecat was once known as the ‘foulmart’ or ‘foul marten’ which is in contrast to the pine marten’s alternative name, ‘sweetmart’, because of the foul smell of the polecat’s anal glands. It is the anal glands which characterises most of the mustelid group.

What do polecats eat?

The name polecat is likely to have come about from the liking of ‘polecats’ for ‘poultry’, the first half of each word derives from the French term ‘poule’ for chicken. 

Polecats live in a variety of habitats frequently using hedgerows, gardens and woodland though they particularly like farms and smallholdings where they have a reputation for taking poultry though they have a wide diet consisting of rabbits, rodents, ground nesting birds and even amphibians. 

Their habit of killing rabbits was one of the reasons for them being domesticated by the Romans who began using them for hunting.

Status in the UK

Over the last 2000 years in the UK wild polecats have been persecuted for their impact on poultry and game birds whilst domesticated ferrets have increased in number. Many ferrets have escaped over the years and bred with the wild polecats leading to a situation in which it is difficult to distinguish the genuinely wild polecats from feral ferret hybrids.

It is thought that the only pocket of wild polecats to survive to the middle of the 20th century was in mid-Wales and the English borders but the good news is that this population has started to spread back into other parts of the UK now covering the greater part of England and even getting into Scotland.

Related: best places to see wildlife in the UK

How to recognise a polecat

It is relatively easy to distinguish a polecat from any other mustelid. The polecat has a typical mustelid shape with long body, long tail and short legs but unlike the stoat and weasel the polecat is dark brown (with a lighter underfur). 

The face of the polecat is quite distinctive with a ‘bandit’ mask of dark fur against a lighter forehead and white muzzle. The ear tips are also white. 

It isn’t possible to distinguish a wild polecat from a ferret hybrid by sight for certain and even genetics can’t always determine the purity. Some features to note include: polecats do not have random white markings on the guard fur (outer coat), nor do they have extensive white on chest, neck or feet and the dark ‘mask’ extends down to the nose.

There is a national polecat survey organised by the Vincent Wildlife Trust, to send in records or for further details see www.vwt.org.uk

Related: ferrets as pets

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.