Shrinking out of the downpour into the inadequate shelter of an ash tree, I peered along the lane in rain-dimmed light and saw movement in the verge. A dark animal, sturdy-slender and perhaps two feet in length, appeared out of the grass and darted on to the tarmac, closely followed by another. They were pale-masked, an aura about them of fierce intent as they undulated along the road before climbing a badger track up the bank, squeezing under a wire fence, lolloping a few yards across the field and disappearing with assured speed down a rabbit burrow.
That was the last I saw of them. They were the first polecats I’d seen in perhaps a year, though these beautiful, ferocious predators are common enough throughout north and west Wales. They’re just exceptionally wary and, in general, are solitary hunters, though at this time of year the spring broods form packs and hunt together, mother-cat being preoccupied with her second annual litter.
My imagination slipped into that rabbit hole to witness the likely carnage being enacted there. Like all members of the weasel family, polecats are savage killers. One old gamekeeper I knew in the Welsh Marches loathed them. He told of how they killed his pheasants indiscriminately, claimed always to know polecats were responsible because they ate only the birds’ brains, leaving the rest of the carcass untouched.
When I lived in Cwm Pennant in the mid-1970s, a young mother who rented the lovely old house of Isallt Fawr left her baby outside in its pram one sunny day. Hearing it crying, she ran outside to see a squirming mass of dark fur covering it. A pack of polecats had smelt it and, fearless of humans, had swarmed into the pram and begun gnawing at the baby’s face – a horror story that was amplified through coverage in the local press. These days no doubt there would be calls for a cull, regardless of the fact that persecution of polecats, which were once common even around the outskirts of London, has been going on for a century and more. Rewilding? We’ll be lucky!
The 10th annual William Condry memorial lecture will be given by Iolo Williams on the wildlife of mid-Wales at Tabernacle/MoMA, Machynlleth on 13 October, 7.30pm