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It’s official polecats are back – one less ghost in the landscape

Dave Rickwood asked me to do a ‘guest blog’ on polecats around Fingle Woods as I had written about this topic on my own blog. So here it a slightly modified version for Fingle Woods fans!

The Vincent Wildlife Trust last week produced a report which showed how the polecat has naturally spread from its former 19th century stronghold in Wales back into much of England and parts of Scotland. Formerly the animal which is related to weasels, stoats and pine martins was a common animal across the UK but persecution by Victorian gamekeepers meant that they were eradicated from all of the country except for an enclave in rural mid Wales. You can read more about the polecat work of the Vincent Wildlife Trust here.

512px-Storm_the_polecatPolecat – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have written about polecats on Dartmoor and in Devon before – see here and here. At the time there was some uncertainty whether they were polecats for feral polecat ferrets.

Dave Rickwood had found a couple of polecat corpses – one at Drewsteignton near Bowbeer Farm  SX 719901 and the other 1km south of Cheriton Cross SX 781923 near to Haylake. Following on from those sightings I was contacted by Bryher Mason who works at Castle Drogo who told me she had seen one at Sandy Park SX712895 – all three records in the vicinity of Fingle Woods.

The map for polecat distribution from 2000 did not show them living in Devon.

vwt-polecats-2000The new work updates the distribution map as follows


I have coined the expression ‘ghosts in the landscape’ – species now extinct in the countryside only now present in our memories. The polecat was a ghost in the landscape but is now back.

It is great to hear of a positive conservation story and it is interesting that the polecats returned under their own steam – they were not re-introduced.

So what other ‘ghosts in the landscape’ are there in Devon? There are lots but here are a couple of  examples – pine marten and red squirrel. The pine martin is making a bit of a comeback in certain parts of the country and is being re-introduced into Wales. Maybe in due course the pine marten will return to Devon (it went extinct in the late 1800s, again as a result of Victorian gamekeepers). Fingle Woods seems to me to be an ideal location for them! If it does return it might offer the prospect of the return of the red squirrel (which died out in the 1950s). Pine martens are very good predators of grey squirrels – the species that ousted the reds. Again a restored Fingle Woods would be perfect for red squirrels.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust is an excellent mammal conservation charity and was set up by Vincent Weir who was in the shipping business. He was a millionaire and supported many conservation causes throughout this life. He sadly died in 2014. I was fortunate to meet him in the mid 1980s when I was Director of Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. I met him in his City offices and he was kind enough to donate some money to the Trust so that we could carry out a substantial management review which saved the day as at that time we were finding the going tough! He was a quiet but generous man who later in his life focused his efforts into the Vincent Wildlife Trust which has subsequently done so much great work on pine martins, polecats, otters and bats. There is a lovely tribute to Vincent Weir on the website of the VWT – see here.

Adrian Colston
A Dartmoor and Devon blog

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