Ferrets and Polecats
Ferrets (mustela furo) are members of a group of mammals known as Mustelids. The Mustelid family is a very diverse group and comprises of animals such as Weasels, Stoats, Polecats, Mink, Otters, Martens and Badgers. It is believed that ferrets are descendants from it's closest cousin the polecat. There are two types of polecat of which the ferret is known to be related to and they are our native European polecat (mustela putorious) and the Steppe polecat (mustela eversmanni) from the Steppe plains of Eastern Europe/Russia bordering Asia.
History reveals that ferrets have been with us for many years and that it was the Ancient Egyptians who domesticated them. They were most probably used as a tool for hunting just as some of us do nowadays, using them to control rabbits and to provide food. Ferrets come in a variety of colours, this is mainly due to selective breeding through past years of domestication. Their colours can range from dark browns to sandy beige, mixed colouration including silvers and silver mitts as well as a common throwback in it's genes when albino colouration occurs. Males are known as Hobs and females Jills.
Ferrets (and polecats) are photoperiodic breeders which means their season is triggered by longer daylight hours. Females have been known to produce up to two litters in any one year. Hobs can come into season from as early as late December/early January and jills begin to show once the days begin to lengthen, late February/early March. Once mated, the gestation period of ferrets is 6 weeks (42 days) and as many as nine kits can be born in a litter. They are born deaf, blind and naked and after a day or so, they begin to grow a thin layer of fur and suckle continuously from the parent female. After approximately 4-5 weeks, they have developed their fur and their eyes and ears begin to open as they start to suck on solid food. At around 8-10 weeks they are fully weaned from the parent female and are eating solid food and drinking. Ferrets can easily live as long as 10 years.
Polecats, as mentioned previously, are the closest related cousin to the ferret within the mustelid family. The European polecat is native to these shores, however they suffered severe decline during the latter end of the last century. It was once recorded that there were less than 50 polecats surviving in the wild throughout the whole of the UK at that time. Their reduction in numbers was due to persecution by man by secondary poisoning from pesticides and rodenticides, trapping, mistaken identity to mink and an ever increasing road network. The polecat's main stronghold in the UK is in Wales although since now being a protected species, their numbers are gradually on the increase and can be found in many counties of England from as far apart as Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset in the south, throughout the Midlands and as far north as Cheshire. Polecats are very elusive creatures and have a tendancy to be nocturnal so their whereabouts are seldom noted. Sometimes on the odd occasion, females can be seen during early summer hunting for food to feed their young but unfortunately, the majority of sightings are of corpses lead along the roadsides where they have inevitably become the casualties of road accidents.
Polecats are a similar size to ferrets albeit slightly broader in their stance and are only found with dark coloured fur which ranges from chestnut to deep brown although albinism cannot be ruled out as it has been recorded on very rare occassions. An accurate way to tell them apart is to measure what is called the post-orbital width of the skull. It has been noted that this measurement is wider in pure polecats. They also have a very noticeable band across their face that touches a dark nose and they have a white muzzle with white tips to the ears. In very rare circumstances, polecats can throw a colour mutation known as erythrism. Erythistic polecats have been recorded only on a couple of occasions when their coat appears to have a red colouration to it. In some instances, this colour form is known to give erythristic polecats the nickname of red fox polecats. Their natural habitat is that of low-lying woodland and downland and their main source of prey food is rabbits, small mammals, and ground nesting birds. Their breeding pattern is exactly that of ferrets, again they are photoperiodic breeders and can have a similar number of kits in their litters sometimes twice a year. Due to a high mortality rate in the wild, their life expectancy can average 3 to possibly 5 years.
One of the first mentions of polecats was back in the middle ages during medieval times dating 1189, when Richard the Lionheart came to the throne after the death of Henry II. That same year, Colchester in Essex received the first known Royal Charter which gave the borough the foundations of self-government. Among other things was the right to hunt foxes, hares and polecats within the borough bounds. Persecution by gamekeepers and landowners alike was the main reason that the polecat became temporarily extinct in England mainly because of an archaic Tudor law called ‘The preservation of grain act’. Henry VIII passed it in 1532 and Elizabeth I further strengthened the act in 1566 making it compulsory for every man, woman and child to kill as many creatures as possible that appeared on an official list of vermin which included otters, weasels, stoats, polecats and even hedgehogs! During 1590, it was the church wardens duty to keep control over the so-called vermin. Two shillings were paid for an otter, 2/6d for weasels and stoats and in 1769 three polecats would fetch you one shilling. The polecat was also trapped for its fur, known as fitch, which was widely used in the early 19 century. In Dumfries in Scotland, there are records showing that 400 polecats were sold at the old fur fair in 1829 and a total of 600 in 1831. Polecat hunting was also a sport amongst the country squires of North Wales and Northern England where special packs of hounds were kept to hunt them down.
Today, UK polecats are now protected by law under the countryside and wildlife act of 1981. Section 6 of this law put a conservation order on several of our native species which included the polecat. Certain methods of killing or taking polecats is now prohibited under the act and it is now an offence to set traps for polecats without obtaining a specialist licence to do so. These days, they are mainly caught for research and recording purposes.
Mink that live in our countryside today are not indigenous to this country. The European mink is no longer native to these shores, the type that now colonizes here is the American mink. The American mink (mustela vison) was introduced here in 1929 purely to farm for it's fur. Over a period of years escapee's have managed to survive in our native habitats thriving well with their numbers steadily increasing - adding to their population boom, animal rights activists released many more from the fur farms they were once kept in adding to their already growing numbers. Over time, the American mink gradually took over the haunts of our once native European mink putting them into such severe decline that they have now become extinct in mainland UK. Only small areas of continental Europe now have colonies of this strain but even these are suffering from decline. Although a very stunning looking creature, the mink is a very voracious hunter. It has been blamed for the reduction in numbers of many of our native animals such as the Water vole and even in some areas, the Moorhen. Their prey consists of voles, mice, fish, eels, small birds, moorhens, eggs and they will venture further afield to catch rabbits. They frequent areas where there is water such as rivers, lakes, canals, ditches and fens and are excellent swimmers sometimes being mistaken for Otters although their size is much smaller. They are solitary animals and are also very territorial. They make their dens fron disused animal burrows and holes between tree roots close to the waterline. Males and females only come together to breed. The mink's breeding season is between February and April and the female can produce up to 6 kits in a litter. They average around 3 years of age living in the wild and can easily live up to 10 years in captivity. If caught or trapped, it is an offence to release mink back into the wild in the UK.
**WE NEED YOUR HELP**
IF YOU HAPPEN TO SEE A POLECAT IN THE WILD - EITHER AS A ROADSIDE CASUALTY OR A LIVE SIGHTING THEN WE WOULD LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU.
ANY DETAILS SUCH AS PHOTOGRAPHS, AREAS WHERE SPOTTED, MAP/O.S GRID REFERENCES OR EVEN ROAD NUMBERS ALL HELP CONTRIBUTE TO OUR SURVEY WORK OF RECORDING THE WHEREABOUTS OF OUR NATIVE POLECAT.
WE WOULD ESPECIALLY LIKE TO HEAR FROM YOU IF YOU LIVE, ARE PASSING OR HAVE PASSED THROUGH OUR LOCALITY OF SALISBURY PLAIN OR THE COUNTIES OF WILTSHIRE/WEST HAMPSHIRE AS WE ARE CURRENTLY COLLATING OUR OWN SURVEY IN REGARDS TO THE NUMBERS OF POLECATS SIGHTED NEAR TO US.
WITH YOUR HELP, ALL OF OUR FINDINGS WILL BE PASSED ON TO NATIONAL ECOLOGICAL SOCIETIES AND LOCAL WILDLIFE TRUSTS. IF YOU CAN PROVIDE US ANY DETAILS, THEN PLEASE USE THE FORM TO SEND THEM TO US ON THE 'CONTACT US' PAGE OF OUR WEBSITE.
Because of the work we are involved in with surveying, recording and rehabilitating live examples of our native European Polecat, we were recently approached by one of the UK's leading ferret veterinarians asking if we would be willing and would like to help in a scientific study in regards to finding the differences, (if any!) between domestic ferrets and our native polecat here in the UK as well as domestic ferrets from the USA. The study is also being carried out in conjunction with veterinarians from the University of California in the US. Ferret specimens ranging from various colours, males and females as well as live and dead specimens of wild polecats are being used to conduct the survey and to help compile any results found for the study.
The study involves collating information from determining each specimen as to whether ferret or polecat, the condition of said animal - dead or alive and where it was found/is located. Other information required also for the study is what it's sex is, the animals approximate age, is it neutered?, it's body weight and it's colour. If the animal is a ferret, things like diet and what it eats have to be listed, is it housed indoors or out, if so what percentage of it's time is spent outdoors and has it been given any vaccines? Once these answers have been recorded, two swabs then have to be taken from each specimens' mouths as well as plucking a number of thick guard hairs from the animals' tail's for DNA testing.
Once enough samples have been submitted, the tests will begin and any trends or results compiled will be released in due course... However, this isn't a five minute exercise so patience is required (!) Any findings once results begin to appear we will definitely pass them on once they have been published! The featured photographs show two ferrets being swabbed. No harm came to the above pictured ferret when the swabbing process was being carried out.
Ferrets are very resilient creatures...
The following story pretty much sums up this opening sentence!
Marilyn who runs our local wildlife hospital received a call recently from a family who witnessed the unfortunate incident of a ferret being run over by a Landrover. The ferret involved was a young female of approximately 1-2 years of age. Although it miraculously survived, it did suffer a very severe crush injury to it's hind quarters resulting in two very large breaks to its left rear leg. Due to the extent of the damage suffered, a decision had to be made as to whether the ferret had to either be put to sleep or have the badly damaged leg removed.
Unsure on which way to go, Marilyn phoned me for some advice as after consulting with the vet, the outlook on the ferret was looking rather bleak... Put it to sleep or amputating the leg at great cost... Because of this, I Emailed and spoke to many people who own ferrets for their views and input and the overwhelming response and opinion was that if the ferret was young, strong and healthy, then the benefit of the doubt should be given on it keeping it's life so after speaking with Marilyn again, the decision was made for the ferret to undergo surgery to have it's leg removed.
Since the ferret underwent surgery to it's leg, i'm glad to say after seeing her recently, she is making a stunning recovery - to the extent of running circles (with her three legs!) around the resident hospital cat! In fact watching her at play, you would think ferrets are born with three legs. They say animals learn to adapt to their disabilities more so than us humans. Knowing and seeing for myself what this small creature has had to endure and now seeing her come through her ordeal - I would certainly agree with this. Ruby, as she has now been named, will live her life with Marilyn at the wildlife hospital where she will now have the care and attention which these wonderful creatures all thoroughly deserve! (The attached photos show ruby shortly after her surgery having had her leg removed).
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