The polecat is thought to have become extinct in Scotland before 1920, with the last sighting being recorded in Sutherland in 1912.
The polecat was described by Ritchie (1920) as 'once an abundant and universally distributed denizen of the Scottish wilds'. Perry (1978) reports that six hundred polecat pelts were on sale in the Dumfries fur market in 1831, but none thirty years later. Harvie-Brown (1881) stated that the polecat was almost extinct in the Scottish borders by 1850. Thirty years later, apart from north of the Moray Firth, it was absent from everywhere except the remoter parts of Ayrshire, Argyll, Perthshire, and Aberdeenshire.
Langley and Yalden (1997) stated that the polecat lingered on later in the far north. In 1881 Harvie-Brown thought it was fairly common in Invernessshire, but by 1895 Harvie-Brown and Buckley recorded it as declining there and rare in Sutherland and Caithness in 1887. Ritchie (1920) recorded that the last polecat in Ross-shire was seen in 1902 and the last in Sutherland in 1912. This was the last polecat recorded in Scotland.
Langley and Yalden (1977) concluded:
It must be presumed that, in fact, the polecat became extinct in North Scotland around 1915, for otherwise the population should have expanded as did that in Wales, and as, indeed the Scottish population of Pine marten and Wild cat have done. Though Ritchie (1920) thought it a rare dweller in the wilds of Ross, Sutherland and Inverness, he quoted no record later than 1912. Batten (1947) recorded seeming one in Ardnamurchan Argyllshire, but this seems to be the only late record. The possibility remains that this was, in fact, a polecat-ferret, which had come from the nearby Isle of Mull; Mull, and also the Isle of Man, have substantial populations of polecat-ferrets.
Some experts contest the fact that the polecat is extinct in Scotland. In 1979, the late David Stephen wrote the following about the polecat:
It is supposed to be extinct in Scotland, but this is dubious for two reasons. The first is that a number of Welsh polecats have been released, or escaped, here and there. The second is that there are a lot of ersatz polecats in the form of polecat ferrets. The island of Mull has long had such a population, and many individuals from there look so like the real thing that they are indistinguishable.
So there are polecats in Scotland, and what it comes down to is a question of 'right' and 'wrong' polecats. The purist will say that all Scottish polecats are wrong ones; but the purist would be wrong. Anyway, right or wrong, real or ersatz, if one gets into a henhouse the result is the same and the argument is academic.
There is no certainty about any method of telling the right from the wrong, and facial markings are no reliable guide to identity. If, as is now widely accepted, the British polecat is the ancestral type of the polecat ferret the problem becomes even more complex. Polecat ferrets have gone wild and bred with polecats ever since man has kept ferrets, so it is a reasonable assumption that no wild polecat has escaped this admixture, and unreasonable to suppose that Welsh polecats have somehow managed to keep themselves in splendid isolation. Any polecat that looks like a polecat, acts like a polecat, and breeds polecats that look like and act like polecats, may surely be considered a polecat.
Batten,H.M. (1947) Polecats and pine martens. Field 189, 18.
Harvie-Brown,J.A. (1881) The past and present distribution of some of the rarer animals in Scotland. III The polecat. Zoologist Series 3. 5, 161-171.
Harvie-Brown,J.A. (1905) A fauna of the Tay Basin. Douglas, Edinburgh.
Harvie-Brown,J.A. and Buckley,T.E. (1887) A vertebrate fauna of Sutherland, Caithness and West Cromarty. Douglas, Edinburgh.
Harvie-Brown,J.A. and Buckley,T.E. (1895) A vertebrate fauna of the Moray Basin. Douglas, Edinburgh.
Langley,P.J.W. and Yalden,D.W. (1977) The decline of the rare carnivores in Great Britain during the nineteeth century. Mammal Review 7, 95 - 116.
Millais,J.G. (1904) The Mammals of Great Britain and Ireland. Longmans Green, London.
Perry,R. (1978) Wildlife in Britain and Ireland. Book Club Associates, London.
Ritchie,J. (1920) The influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland. A study in Faunal Evolution. University Press, Cambridge.
Stephen,D. (1979) In 'Wildlife of Scotland' Holliday,F. (Ed.) Macmillan, London.
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