Polecats in Essex

Monday 27th November 2017

Polecat - John Dobson

The hardy Polecat is battling back into Essex after decades of extinction – and could it be conquering invasive Mink? Help record Polecat sightings so we can track the species in Essex.

The Polecat is native to Britain and was once frequently sighted in Essex - but after centuries of unrelenting persecution was brought to extinction by the end of the 19th century. Then, during the mid-20th Century, another cat-sized member of the Weasel family crept into the ecological gap left by the Polecat: the North American Mink. First introduced into the UK for fur farming, Mink have escaped and famously been released into the wild for decades, where they have since bred and become very successful. Unlike the Polecat, Mink have an extremely damaging impact on the native Water Vole colonies, driving the vole’s decline and earning it the title of ‘the UK’s fastest declining mammal’.

However, in 1999 there was the first record of a true Polecat in Essex for 100 years. A population has since spread into the county from the west and across north Essex. Then, earlier this year, anecdotal reports from volunteer mink monitors from that area began to suggest something unprecedented: a steep decline in Mink activity, as Polecat sightings were increasing.

At present we do not know if it is the presence of native Polecats displacing the Mink ivaders - this could be pure coincidence. But what is certain is that Mink in Essex have never encountered such a similar competing predator until now. Essex Wildlife Trust is collating records of Polecat sightings, as this will show if there is any scientific basis to the theory. 

How to identify: Polecats are roughly the size of a Ferret – its domesticated cousin. Polecats have a two-tone coat: dark brown guard hairs cover a buff-coloured underfur. They have a dark ‘bandit mask’ across the eyes that extends down to a dark nose. Polecats do cross with escaped Ferrets; to differentiate Polecats accurately from Ferret mixes, Essex Wildlife Trust need photographs of the nose and face head on, and the underside, including legs and chin.

If you have seen a Polecat/Ferret road casualty or a live sighting, then please send a photo to Darren Tansley at darrent@essexwt.org.uk with the date and location.