Ferreting Around

Ferreting Around

Polecat

As a parent of two teenage boys, I have done my fair share of night-time driving, ferrying a backseat full of youngsters from social gatherings and sports training. My folks did the same for me, so I do this willingly.
But there is an unexpected benefit to being out and about on the winding country lanes of Suffolk and north Essex after nightfall if you are interested in the natural world. From time-to-time my headlights pick out a nocturnal animal, often making for a memorial wildlife encounter. Chance meetings I can recall include seeing a magnificent stag fallow deer standing proudly in the middle of the road from Edwardstone; a badger scuttling across a thoroughfare near Castle Hedingham and a ghostly barn owl appearing like an apparition from over the hedge in Lavenham.

Not a skunk
Last month, as my wife and I drove our son back from Bulmer, we had another noteworthy chance meeting to add to the list.
Heading down the hill towards Sandy Lane, a large, dark and furry creature with white markings and a substantial tail scampered across the road in front of my Kia. My passengers were quite sure what it wasn’t: “It’s not a cat”, “It’s too small to be a badger”, “It can’t be a skunk”.
And although there was something of the Pepe Le Pews about it, I was sure what we had seen was a polecat.
The polecat belongs to the weasel family, the Mustelidae, which include such species as badgers, otters, martens, mink, ferrets, stoats, weasels and yes, skunks. These are all tough and fierce animals, and many have long bodies with short legs.
While I have seen the odd stoat and weasel on and around the Sudbury Common Lands – typically emerging from verges – this was the first time I had encountered a wild polecat in these parts.

Rare
This is no surprise because up until ten years ago there were no sightings of polecats in our county, according to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Over the centuries, polecats have been persecuted by gamekeepers until by the early 20th century they had become almost extinct in England – their numbers restricted to Wales and the Welsh borders.
However, following legal protection in the 1950s and the steadily increasing numbers of their rabbit prey (the polecats main food source) after their population crash due to myxomatosis, the number of polecats started to slowly recover, and the population gradually spread eastwards towards East Anglia.
Down the ages farmers and gamekeepers have been wary of polecats and its name may derive from the early French expression poule-chat (chicken-cat), a likely reference to its perceived liking for poultry.
And yes, the skunk connections are valid. The polecat’s Latin name Mustela putorius means ‘foul-smelling musk bearer’, referring to the pungent smell which the animal releases from an anal gland as a defence when it is frightened or injured. Mammal conservation charity, the Vincent Wildlife Trust says this also explains the polecat’s old English name ‘foulmart’ which distinguished it from the ‘sweetmart’ or pine marten that has no defensive ‘stink’.

Ferreting around
The polecat’s closest relative is the ferret, which has been domesticated for millennia. Some of the polecat sightings in the wild may in fact be polecat-ferrets – the result of mating between polecats and escaped ferrets.
The albino ferret and darker polecat-ferret are commonly kept as pets or working animals used to bolt rabbits. I remember being fascinated by ferrets as a young boy after a visit to the Norfolk home of my Uncle Bumble who worked as a gamekeeper at that time. Several of my dad’s brothers had unusual names – Bumble was so-called because as a boy he always wore an orange and black jumper that resembled the stripes of a bumblebee.
Bumble kept some ferrets in cages near his shed – strange beasts with yellow-white fur and red eyes that writhed and snaked all over each other, I was told in no uncertain terms to keep my fingers away from the cage and their razor-sharp teeth, “unless I wanted to lose them”. Bumble described how ferrets would be sent down rabbit burrows, following the rabbits’ scent and forcing them to flee out of their underground homes and into nets placed across the holes.
I imagined the ferrets, sniffing and rooting around in the dark with menace. That action has led to the term “ferreting around” to describe a search for something that has been lost or hidden in a closed space.
Polecats are rarely seen during the day and will use vacated rabbits burrows to lay-low in during daylight hours before emerging at night. So, keep your eyes peeled next time you take a late-night drive.

Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity