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Posts Tagged ‘polecat’

Summer sunsetIf you’re looking at this page in the hope of reading about badgers, I’m sorry.  I’m afraid I’ve been very busy lately.  We had Scarlett’s Christening on Sunday, and a very pleasant day it was too, but it did take a certain amount of time in preparation.  I haven’t had a chance to see how the badgers are doing lately.  All I had time for over the weekend was a gentle stroll in the field behind my house.

The field behind my house is in most respects an ordinary field, much as you would find anywhere in lowland Britain.  It is a big field, about a quarter of a mile on each side.  A road runs up the south side, a hedgerow and a footpath on the west, another footpath and a small copse on the north. The hedges are interspersed with grand old oak trees.  My house and garden is on the east.  The hill is on a low rise, the soil on the lower slopes being sand with clay; on the higher slopes it is almost pure sand.  At the moment the field is under oil seed rape, but it was under wheat last year.

It’s an ordinary field – you probably drive past hundreds just like it – but it’s special to me because it is next to where I live.  More than that, though, I’m always surprised by the wildlife that either lives in or passes through it.  I regularly track a badger that walks a beat up the northern path.  The edges of the field are home to numerous rabbits, and the runs and latrines of voles can be found in many places.  Chinese Water Deer are common inhabitants (invisible now that the rape has grown up) as are muntjac near the hedgerows.  A herd of fallow deer passes through every week or two, and we even have the odd roe deer, quite a rare species here in Bedfordshire.

This is what makes it special.  It’s an ordinary field but I’m starting to learn its secrets.  I’d recommend this to anyone.  Find a local patch, even if it’s in a park or a piece of scrub, and keep visiting it.  I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the wildlife it holds.

It’s been gloriously sunny for almost three weeks now.  The ground is parched (as is my vegetable garden) and baked hard.  A better tracker than me, or one with more patience, could maybe track animals in the dust, but I had neither the time nor the skill on Sunday evening.  I think I’ll have to get out one evening and just spend an hour or so lying down and looking at the ground.  I’ve found that when tracking it always takes me a little while to ‘get my eye in’.  It isn’t something you can rush.  The neighbours will think I’m even more mad than usual, but an evening of lying in a field sounds quite enjoyable at the moment.

One thing that I did come across on my stroll was quantities of dung.  I suppose I should use the correct tracker’s term and call it scat.  Usually I only see the scat of rabbits, voles and foxes in this field.  Fox scat is quite distinctive because they tend to leave it in conspicuous places as a territorial marker – on a rock, a molehill or a tuft of grass.  But on Sunday I came across some new scat that I hadn’t seen before.  The scale in the pictures is in cm.

Unknown scat 1

It was from a carnivore.  You tell that by the thin shape and the pointed ‘tail’ at the end.  It was similar in shape to a fox’s, but much smaller.  There were five or six individual droppings spread out over an area of a few square yards at the top of the field.

Unknown scat 2Taking a stick, I teased one apart (first dead polecats, now poo.  I get through so much anti-bacterial handwash you wouldn’t believe it!)  The scat was composed entirely of hair.  It looked like rabbit hair to me.  There were no bones, so whatever made it hadn’t been eating mice or voles.  I’d expect to find bone fragments if they had.

Unknown scat 3Why so much fascination with animal poo?  OK – follow my reasoning here.

The animal that left these was a carnivore.  It was significantly smaller than a fox, and it had been eating rabbit regularly.  I’m familiar with domestic cats, and it didn’t come from one of those.  This narrows it down to one of the small mustelids – weasel, stoat or polecat.  There are no other possible predators it could be from.

Weasels will eat rabbits, but they more commonly prey on mice and voles.  Since there were no mouse or vole bones in the scats I examined, I think we can rule out weasel.  Besides, they were a bit big for a weasel scat.

That leaves polecat or stoat as the only serious candidates.  Both of these will take rabbits regularly, particularly stoats.  The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails & Signs has this to say about stoat scat:

‘Dark, irregular and elongated.  They are 4-8cm long and there are characteristic twists of fur at each end of the faeces, which are coiled and twisted within themselves.  They have a strong, musty smell when fresh but weather to an odourless grey with time.  They contain a wide variety of mammal, bird and reptile remains’

And polecats:

‘Slightly coiled, often twisted and with tapering ends.  Up to 7cm long, about 0.5cm in diameter.  Contain bone and fur fragments.  Often in regular latrines’.

Very interesting. Either of these could fit the bill perfectly.  My money would be on the stoat, simply because they are much more common than polecats.  I’ve been fascinated by stoats for ages, and I’ve love to get a good look at one.  Based on the evidence, it seems that I’ve at least one stoat resident in the field behind my house.

And this is the point of this post really.  It shows what can be discovered if you’re patient and prepared to look.  I had a gentle stroll on a summer evening and by the end of it I had strong evidence of stoats in the neighbourhood.  OK – I had to sift through a certain amount of animal poo to find it, but it was there.  Now I have a spot I can focus on and hopefully get to see the stoat properly one day.  As I always say, the wildlife is out there.  It’s just a question of finding enough pieces of the jigsaw.

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After I described my roadkill polecat (I’ve had it confirmed as a ‘pure’ polecat by the County Mammal Recorder, by the way) Pablo took the time to comment, saying “I suppose you didn’t take its pawprints before you disposed of it?

Pablo – I like the way you think!

As a tracker you get used to seeing partial or distorted prints, and for many of the rarer ones you’re never quite sure what made them.  The chance to get perfect prints from a known species is too good to pass up.  Well, I didn’t take pawprints but I was on the same wavelength as Pablo.  I took pictures instead.

Here, for the record, is what a polecat’s paws look like.  Here’s the fore paw:

Polecat fore (front) paw

Polecat fore (front) paw

Here’s the hind paw:

Polecat hind (rear) paw

Polecat hind (rear) paw

Note the five toes on each foot.  Polecats are members of the mustelid family, just like badgers, and they share the same basic foot structure.

Here’s a badger foot for comparison:

Badger fore paw

Badger fore paw

So, now we know what we’re looking for, it’s time for us all to go out and start looking out for polecat tracks.  That’s the beauty of tracking – it allows you to find out about the local wildlife without needing to see the animals yourself.  It’s a great tool for the naturalist to have.

I’ll keep you posted on my results.

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In yesterday’s post I described how I came across a polecat that had been killed on the road just outside our village.  Polecats still being quite rare in these parts, I was quite pleased to have found one so close to home (obviously the circumstances were less than ideal from the polecat’s point of view).  I ended by saying I’d like to see one some day.

Well, this morning I drove to the tip again (I told you it was a regular activity for me) and as I neared the spot where I found the dead polecat, a live one ran across the road in front of me.  It paused to sniff at a parked car and then disappeared into the woods at the side of the road.

It was definitely a polecat, or at least it was definitely the same species as the one I examined yesterday. A beautiful, lithe, sinuous creature.  If I was pleased to see a dead polecat, I was positively ecstatic to see a live one.

It goes to show that where there’s one animal from a species, there will be more.  Fair enough, this was only a fleeting view, but it’s a start.  The next stage will be to try and observe a polecat properly, and to get a photo or two if possible.  Given my lack of success with finding and watching the polecat’s near relative, the stoat, this may be difficult.  In theory, knowing the area where they live, the best thing would be to find a spot with plenty of rabbits (the main prey) and sooner or later I should be rewarded with decent polecat sighting.

And do you remember BBC Springwatch last year?  Simon King (my hero!) had waited 46 years to see a polecat.  With the finest camera equipment available (including multiple night vision cameras), a whole team of people and the pick of polecat hotspots to choose from, it still took them the best part of a week to get any good footage.  Never mind.  One of the good things about being a (very) amateur naturalist is that I’m in no hurry.  I have no deadlines to meet, no live programmes to fill.  It may take a while, but sooner or later I’ll get that picture of a polecat.

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Polecat road casualty in BedfordshireThis morning I was driving to the tip with a load of rubbish (a regular weekend activity when you’re renovating an old house) when I noticed a dead animal on the road about a mile and a half away from my house.  Dead animals are pretty common around here, mostly rabbits and pheasants with the odd muntjac or chinese water deer too.  This animal was different though.  It tells you something about my character that I stopped the car and walked back for a look.  My curiosity overcame my general repugnance at looking at a dead animal on a hot summer day.

I’m pretty sure that the animal was a polecat.  The polecat is one of the success stories of British wildlife, in a slightly topsy-turvy way.  Once commonplace, they were wiped out from most of the country until by the 1930s they were limited to mid-Wales.  Since then, with the decline of gamekeepers and large-scale shooting estates, the polecat has been re-colonising England, and the speed of their spread eastwards seems to be increasing.  Most of our knowledge of polecat distribution in the UK comes not from sightings but from road kills – they’re quite an elusive and inconspicuous species.  Polecats are not unknown in Bedfordshire by any means (my wife saw one crossing a road last year), but they aren’t common either.

This animal had the classic ‘bandit mask’ dark markings around the eyes that are characteristic of polecats. However, Polecat facial markingshaving never seen a polecat before I can’t be 100% sure.  The problem is that escaped ferrets (which are basically domesticated polecats) will revert to polecat-like colouring after a few generations in the wild.  These are known as ‘polecat ferrets’.  But let’s be realistically optimistic about this.  Polecats are expanding across the country and there are confirmed records of them in Bedfordshire.  Unless someone more expert than me can give me evidence to the contrary, I’m going to assume that this animal was a real, bona fide polecat and this means that polecats are established in my local area.  It isn’t a major scientific breakthrough, but it’s another piece in the jigsaw of our local wildlife, and it gives me hope that I might see one in the wild one day.

Incidentally, I don’t really think I should be encouraging people to start messing around with dead animals by the roadside, but if you really do want to, please make sure you stay safe.  Always, always watch out for traffic, and if the road isn’t safe then don’t put yourself at risk.  You’d look pretty daft ending up as another casualty alongside the animal you’re supposed to be looking at.  And please do follow some basic precautions if you want to handle dead animals.  I keep a box of disposable gloves and a bottle of hand sanitiser permanently in my car for just this sort of situation.  Don’t even think about handling wild animals without them.

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