The polecat Mustela putorius is a native European mammal and a member of the mustelid (weasel) family. They are a similar size to a ferret, with a long slim body, dark fur and a ‘bandit-like’ mask of dark and light fur on its face although colour and markings vary with individuals and with the seasons. Males are some 30% larger than females.
Although they are a solitary animal they aren’t particularly territorial and members of the same sex will often share the same territory. They are well known for having the characteristic ability to secrete a particularly foul-smelling liquid to mark their territory. Polecats are polygamous, with each male polecat mating with several females. The mating period is in early spring and 5 to 10 kits are born about 40 to 45 days following copulation. Weaning begins at around three weeks but it is some 3 to 4 months before the young achieve full independence.
They use burrows that they dig themselves or they find the disused burrows of other species or perhaps cavities in stone walls or deep hollows in tree trunks. A single Polecat will often have a number of different burrows or cavities on its territory that it makes use of.
Natural habitat tends to be centred on wetlands, rivers, canals and lakes where their food consists mainly of frogs and voles, but sometimes rats, birds or other small prey. It is one of the rare predators to gather prey (mainly frogs) in "food reserves" in the spring. One of the favoured prey is often considered to be rabbits that they catch in their burrows but this tends to be a summer diet. Occasionally they will attack young hares. Birds such as Partridge that spend the night on the ground make easy pickings.
They have no serious natural predators other than foxes and some birds of prey.
Above - Road-kill Southwest France with traffic a serious issue for so many creatures
In the North East of France the polecat seems to be more populous than in the other regions but the state of the populations aren’t well known.
In the Paris region, (Île-de-France), they are scarce with a dispersed distribution following a steep decline.
In Normandy they are also scarce and declining.
In Brittany, they are still common in places but rare in others and the population has generally declined.
In Pays-de-la-Loire, they are not very common and probably declining.
In Center-Val-de-Loire, it is common to rare and in probable decline.
In the Grand-Est, (the old regions of Ardennes, Aube, Marne, Haute-Marne, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse Moselle, Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin, Vosges), and Burgundy-Franche-Comté, they aren’t common and likely declining.
In Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, they are rare and in decline.
In Nouvelle Aquitaine they are irregularly distributed and declining.
In Occitanie, (the old regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées), they aren’t common and are in decline.
In Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur they are very rare and declining.
It should be noted that the available knowledge varies according to the region but it’s clear that there is one thing in common: the Polecat is nowhere abundant. The weakness of the population seems to be the result of a historic decline in the course of the twentieth century which seems to be widespread in France and accelerated from the late 1970’s although it can not be precisely measured. The local distribution of the species seems most often heterogeneous with them declining the most where there is intensive arable production and where there has been the removal of wetland habitat. Human destruction by trapping, shooting or poisoning has undoubtedly played a major role along with traffic collisions.
The current situation as of Dec 2018 is that the Polecat remains on the list of species that can be considered vermin or liable to cause damages to livestock, specifically Partridge and poultry.
Given the decline the Société Française pour l’Étude et la Protection des Mammifères are requesting that the Polecat be given protected status.