December 23 2014 Latest news:
Friday, January 10, 2014
Experts hope a new study will reveal the polecat has returned to Suffolk for the first time in more than 100 years.
Trapped to extinction during the 19th Century, the polecat has been absent from lowland Britain ever since.
But a national survey has now been launched to see if the animal has continued to spread east after studies in 2004-2006 showed the polecat had moved from the Welsh borders to re-colonise central and southern England.
Lizzie Croose, projects support officer at the Vincent Wildlife Trust, who is co-ordinating the survey, said the trust also hopes people’s reports will build up a picture of hybridisation between polecats and feral ferrets.
Ms Croose explained: “It’s the third national survey that we have done, we did one in the 1990s and one between 2004 and 2006.
“Polecats became very rare in the early 20th Century and became confined to central Wales and the Welsh/English borders. Since the middle of the last century they have been recovering and spreading eastwards. They have come back into England and are re-colonising a lot of central and southern England.”
She added: “We would expect from this survey that polecats would have continued to spread eastwards and we would expect to get records from East Anglia and Suffolk where they haven’t really been recorded before. But obviously until we get the records we won’t know for sure.”
Polecats, like other native carnivores such as pine marten and wild cat, suffered persecution from game keepers due to fears they would predate on poultry, game birds and eggs.
Ms Croose said: “Especially during the heyday of the Victorian game estates they were really hammered.”
As part of the survey, which is running from 2014-2015, people are being asked to send in their sightings of polecats and feral ferrets – the domesticated descendent of the polecat.
She added: “The survey has two aims really. The first is to gather up-to -date information on the current distribution of polecats and see where they have spread to.
The second is to look at this hybridisation between polecats and ferrets.”
Hybrids are often found towards the edges of the “pure” polecat range, in areas like East Anglia. They can be distinguished from polecats by their pelage.
“Most of the records we have tend to be of animals that are killed on roads so in these cases we are asking people to take pictures so we can distinguish it as a polecat or a polecat ferret,” said Ms Croose. “We are also asking people, if they can, to send us carcasses if they come across them in the road. These will be used for genetic analysis to investigate hybridisation.”
The physical examination of livers will also be used to see if polecats are being affected by the poisoning of rats around farms. Ms Croose said: “We want to look at how their expanding range might be impacting on them coming into contact with prey that has been poisoned.”
Julian Roughton, chief executive of Suffolk Wildlife Trust, previously said there had been “a couple” of definite records of wild polecat.
He added: “That’s great. It’s a return of a natural predator, which is suited to this landscape and was only lost because of persecution.
“There is no reason why they shouldn’t thrive and prosper again.”
More details about the survey, including where to send more information, can be found at www.vwt.org.uk.