The European Polecat is a species of small to medium size mustelids that are related to the minks and weasels found in Europe and some parts of Asia. They have a very long history in many European cultures, and have also been domesticated down the ages. Also known in different names including common ferret, black or forest polecat, and fitch, they have been frequently made to a hybrid between other similar species like steppe polecats, black-footed ferrets, and the European minks. These animals also have a reputation as pests of poultry, stealing farm animals, and are often targeted to be killed.
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European Polecat Scientific Classification
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Table of Contents
Size: The body length can be anything between 35 and 51 cms (14 – 20 inches).
Weight: They can weigh between 0.7 and 1.5 kg (1.5 – 3.25 lbs).
Head: The head is long with a short, blunt face, and small, rounded ears, pair of small, pinkish nose (nostrils), and rounded, dark eyes. Their mouth bears rows of small but sharp teeth.
Body: The body is elongated with a somewhat cylindrical shape, while the legs are short.
Tail: The tail is short and furry with a length between 12 and 19 cm (4.75 – 7.5 inches).
Fur: They have a semi-dense coat with the hair color being mostly dark brown with white marks around the muzzle, ears, and eyes, and a pale underside.
Sexual Dimorphism: Though the sexes do not display any visible differences, the males can weigh up to twice as much, as also, almost thrice longer as their female counterparts.
The average longevity of the European polecat in the wild is 6-10 years, and almost 15 years in captivity.
The European polecat originated in Western Europe during the Middle Pleistocene epoch. The present range of this animal is throughout western Eurasia and the northern parts of Morocco.
European polecats inhabit lowland areas including marshes, sand dunes, wooded areas, riverbanks, sea cliffs, and forest plantations.
Classification of Species
Seven subspecies of the European polecat has been described, as of 2005, which include common polecat, Welsh polecat, Mediterranean polecat, Scottish polecat, Middle Russian polecat, Carpathian polecat, and the Domestic ferret.
Polecats are solitary creatures with a territorial home range averaging to around 100 hectares. This, however, varies depending on the availability of food and the seasons. They will defend their territories from both the sexes unless a female has a litter or it’s the mating season.
They are mostly nocturnal except for females with young that have been seen foraging even in the day. However, during winter, they are generally less active and are often seen moving in the wild in warm sunlight.
The sense of vision of these polecats is not very strong and they mostly depend on their sense of smell for locating and killing the prey. While hunting, they stalk the prey, and when they manage to reach the animal, they kill it with a swift bite to the prey’s neck.
European polecats are mostly carnivorous and usually live on rodents and rabbits, as well as eggs, birds, amphibians, and carrion. However, if food becomes scarce, they would also consume insects and fruits.
Reproduction & Life Cycle
The mating season of these polecats falls between March and May. While copulating, the male grabs the female by the neck, dragging the latter forward and backward, as long as it does not become limp. Soon after this, the actual process of mating occurs.
This animal can breed only once a year. After a gestation period of 40 – 42 days, the females produce a litter of typically 3-7 offspring in late May or early June. Occasionally, color mutations, including albinos and erythrists, do occur.
Initially, the European polecat kits are nursed by the mother, as well as protected from dangers. When the baby polecats reach four months of age, they begin to disperse to other areas in order to find their own territories. It takes almost one year for the juveniles to attain the age of sexual maturity.
- Their contrasting body color helps them camouflage easily in the varied environments they live in, including marshes, forests, and the desert regions.
- Their strong sense of smell is actually a natural ability to compensate for their low vision.
Humans are the primary predator of the European Polecats, hunting them mostly for their fur in the wild.
Owing to their vast population and wide range, the European polecat has been declared as ‘LC’ (Least Concern) by the IUCN 3.1.
- Name ‘polecat’ is said to have originated from the French phrase ‘poule chat’, meaning “the chicken cat”, a name that refers to their fondness for hunting and eating chickens from farms.
- According to the Owen’s Welsh Dictionary, the early Irish settlers in northern Wales, known as the ‘Gwythelians’, kept polecats as pets.
- During the Elizabethan period, the name ‘Polecat’ was used to refer to vagabonds.
- These creatures became synonymous with promiscuity in early English literature.
- During the reign of Elizabeth I, these animals were perceived as bloodthirsty animals and were declared as vermin.