Polecats in Assynt: a blast from the past

June 10th 2017

Malcolm Bangor-Jones, Inverkirkaig, recently sent me an extract from The Northern Times for 8th January 1903, which reads as follows:

Roderick MacLeod keeper The Lodge Lochinver trapped two fine specimens of the polecat on the Lochinver shootings. In splendid fur and measured 24 and 25 inches from tip to tip.  Recently Donald Macdonald keeper Knockneach caught a very good polecat in Glencanisp Forest, 24 inches tip to tip. “Although these animals seem to be now getting rare in other parts of the country, there are a number of them caught yearly in the Parish of Assynt, as well as a few marten cats.  … Mr MacLeod, captures about half-a-dozen of these animals yearly.”

These must have been amongst the last polecats killed in Assynt, since the latest record I have come across is from 1907, and within a decade or so the species was extinct in Scotland. The relentless persecution of this and many other so-called ‘vermin’ species, for the sake of game, had been occurring in Assynt for decades. James Ritchie’s Animal Life in Scotland (1920, p.176) shows, for example, the annual numbers of three species killed on one local keeper’s beat between 1869 and 1880. They total 26 wild cat, 22 pine marten and 15 polecats. And, lest we think that this practice is really ancient history, wild cats were certainly being killed in Assynt until the 1950s, perhaps more recently.

Illustration of polecat from The Handbook of British Mammals (ed. H.N. Southern, 1964)

Ian M. Evans

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