Black polecat, Forest polecat, Fitch, Western polecat
European polecats belong to the mustelid family and are related closely to domestic ferrets. Their slender body is weasel like, with short legs and a wide head. The males are much bigger and heavier than the females, but otherwise, the genders have the same general appearance, their coat being buff to black, with a white mask around their face. In winter their coat is thick, glossy and lustrous, but in summer it thins out and looks somewhat faded.
The European polecat is a native of North Africa and western Eurasia. It lives in lowland areas, being found in marshes, wooded areas, forest plantations, riverbanks, sand dunes and sea cliffs. Often they are associated with farm buildings.
Habits and lifestyle
Like most mustelids, polecats are solitary creatures. They will defend their territory fiercely, unless a female has young, or is in season. They are primarily nocturnal, though females and their young will forage during the day. In winter polecats are less active, emerging during the day more often than in summer. The European polecat has a settled way of life, and has definite home ranges, which vary according to habitat, season, gender and social status. A male will typically have a larger territory than a female. Each individual uses a few den sites throughout its territory. Sometimes abandoned Red fox or European badger burrows are also used. Like other mustelids, European polecats are usually silent animals, though they growl fiercely when angry, and squeak when distressed. They also make a low, mewling cry to their mate or offspring.
Diet and nutrition
European polecats are carnivorous and generally prey on rodents and rabbits. They also eat fruit and insects if food is scarce.
European polecats are polygynandrous (promiscuous), with both males and females mating with multiple partners. Breeding takes place in winter. One litter per year is usually produced, though, if a litter is lost, a female may give birth a second time that season. 3-7 young are born following 42 days of gestation, and weaning takes place after one month. Mothers care for their offspring until they are about 3 months old and adult size. European polecats reach reproductive maturity after 1 year of age.
European polecats were pronounced vermin during the time of Elizabeth I, and seen as bloodthirsty animals. Threats today are from accidental trapping, as well as secondary poisoning from rodenticides. Other threats include changes in land use (like hedge removal), road deaths and crossbreeding with feral species, which threatens their genetic integrity.
No estimate of population size is available for European polecats, but it's believed to be large due to its wide distribution. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC), but its numbers today are decreasing.
Polecats are important in the ecosystems where they live as predators of small mammals.
Fun facts for kids
- Polecats have an attractive thick, silky, brown fur and a pale yellow underbody. In winter their coat molts to silvery-gray for camouflage.
- The name "polecat" comes from the French "poule chat" meaning "the chicken cat," referring to polecat hunting and eating chickens.
- European polecats are able to interbreed with ferrets. These hybrid animals have the appearance of large European polecats and are sterile.
- The polecat is the only ancestor of the ferret, domesticated more than 2000 years earlier in order to hunt animals classified as 'vermin'.
- Polecats were almost brought to extinction in Britain at the close of the nineteenth century by gamekeepers, but this nocturnal hunter is currently making a comeback.
- If you dream about a polecat this is supposed to be a positive sign. These animals are considered a symbol of an upcoming productive and fruitful period in life.