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You are in: Manchester > Nature > Nature features > The polecat's return

Polecat wearing a radio collar [pic: Rob Scrivens]

Tracked: polecat with a radio collar

The polecat's return

Polecat - friend or foe? For the BBC Saving Planet Earth series, we look at conservation efforts in Cheshire to bring back Britain’s most persecuted predator since the wolf.

Polecat (Mustela putorius)

* Weight: 600-900g
* Life span: 5 years
* diet: mainly rabbits, small rodents and birds
* closely related to domestic ferrets
* widespread in Wales, spreading into England
* solitary and mainly nocturnal
* produce litters of 5-8 kits
* once almost extinct in UK
* a species of conservation concern

Deep in the heart of Cheshire, a unique conservation project is helping to return a rare native species to the British countryside.

For the past six years, the RSPCA Wildlife Centre at Stapeley Grange near Nantwich has been taking in orphaned polecats before re-introducing them to the wild.

And it’s proving a success. Since 2001, a total of 45 young polecats have been returned. And by attaching radio collars, the centre has shown that they are able to fend for themselves.

But why the need for conservation? Why have polecat numbers declined?


Give a cat a bad name

For years, the polecat was persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers in Britain until it was almost trapped into extinction early last century. But it was given a bad name, as Dr Andrew Kelly, the centre manager at Stapeley Grange, explains:

Anaesthetised polecat [pic: Rob Scrivens]

Anaesthetised polecat gets fitted

"There was a mistaken assumption that they fed on poultry. The name comes from the French ‘poule chat’ which means ‘chicken cat’. But they don’t actually eat chickens and certainly with the invention of wire mesh they can’t get access to chickens.

"In actual fact, a couple of studies in England have shown that 87% of their diet is made up of wild rabbits and the rest of the diet is made up small mammals like rats. So they’re a carnivore species that should be tolerated by landowners."


Thanks to reduced persecution and conservation efforts in the polecat stronghold of Wales, numbers are now increasing and the animals are spreading across Shropshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and Lancashire.

"The name comes from the French ‘poule chat’ which means ‘chicken cat’. But they don’t actually eat chickens"

Dr Andrew Kelly, RSPCA Wildlife Centre, Cheshire

The polecat has also recently been given Biodiversity Action Plan status by the Joint Nature Conservation Council (JNCC) which recognises that, while not a priority species, is in important population in need of conservation.

"The work we are doing ties quite nicely into that," explains Dr Kelly. "Because we have information on what the animals do once they’re released. We also have a supply of animals because we’re one of the only centres in the country with the skills to look after polecats."

In the wild, a female polecat usually has a litter of 5-8 kits. Then in September/ October, the kits leave the mother to try to build a territory of their own. The release of the orphaned polecats is timed to mimic their natural dispersal.

Polecat kits

Orphaned kits are released

"We attach tiny radio transmitters and then follow them until the transmitter naturally falls off. This allows us to show that they’re surviving, ie. that they can catch prey. And that’s vital from our point of view because if we are to release these creatures back into the wild, we have to show that they can survive and show normal behaviour."

Did you know?

Polecats mark their territories with a foul smell emitted from the scent-glands at the base of their tail. In Shakespearean times, the word 'polecat' was used to describe someone of equally unpleasant character.

The polecat rehabilitation programme is continuing at RSPCA Stapeley Grange. There are plans to radio track ten young polecats later this year.

last updated: 20/03/2008 at 14:57
created: 14/06/2007

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