There was something crazy and wild in the mink trap. Not a mink sure enough, but a beast so furious that I sprang away from it in horror. I hardly know how to describe it, and even after a day to cud the evidence, I’m still unsure how to define the presence in that narrow mesh cage.
There are polecats in Galloway, but the old native population has been sorely depleted by interbreeding with feral ferrets. The two species make a viable hybrid, and for every purebred polecat, there are plenty of phoneys. All I can be sure of is that I caught a beast with a black bandit’s mask; that’s where the certainty ends. Perhaps he was more polecat than ferret, but it’s hard to define his ancestry as pure on either side of the coin.
He spat and chattered, and when I picked up the cage he sprayed us both with a skunky explosion of piss and anger which caused me to rue the day our paths ever crossed. And in the end, I let him go. He soared from that cage like a bolt of malodorous lightning, and I felt more certain than ever that while he might have had a domesticated ancestor, this beast belonged to no man.
Perhaps I’m getting soft and old, but the memory of my own ferrets hung around that beast. I love polecats, ferrets and martens, and it would have gone hard to kill him. But even without a fuzzy edge of sentimentality, I justified his release in several ways.
First, that it’s unhelpful to be overly picky about genetics. He probably wasn’t a pure polecat, but the manner and haste of his departure from my trap seemed to suggest that he has lived a long and fruitful life in the wild. He’s able to find work for himself, and that means that he stands on his own four feet. Splitting hairs over gene-pools seems like an unfair metric to weigh the merits of an animal which follows the habits of his wild ancestors. Follow that line too far and you begin to query the genetic credentials of red deer, brown trout and a whole host of species which have been tinkered with across the years. Polecats occupy a well-defined niche in native ecosystems; they push and pull alongside a variety of other species. I felt like killing him would have been an act of academic pedantry, and if I can’t enjoy the sight of “pure” polecats in the wild, it’s a fair surrogate to find one who is near-as-damnit.
I trap mink because they aren’t native to Britain, and their behaviour enables them to fill an entirely different niche in our ecosystem. Mink perform a role which belongs to North America; they hunt as well in water as they do on dry land, and their appetite is voracious. British wildlife has no comeback to the arrival of mink; the predators have wiped out watervoles, dabchicks and kingfishers. They come as if from another planet, and the harm they do goes beyond normal “balancing”. But polecats do belong here, and the impact they cause is limited by natural mechanisms; prey species have some recourse to safety because they understand the rules of engagement.
I know that ferret/polecat hybrids have caused serious damage in some parts of the country. They are significant predators of ground nesting birds on the Isle of Man, and that seems like a situation where control is justified. But during the course of thirty years in Galloway, I have only seen three or four escaped ferrets. They were all dead on the roadside. But I have never seen any ferret/polecat hybrids, and certainly never heard of a cross which leant so heavily in favour of the polecat. Perhaps if I was catching five or six of these animals a week, I would feel differently about letting him go. After the smelling him at first-hand, I hope I never see him again – but it does tickle me to know he’s out there somewhere.
At the same time, I can hardly resist the growing sense that predator control as we know it in this part of the country might soon have had its day. It feels increasingly perverse to hunt and seek out foxes, stoats and runaway ferrets at a time when the number of badgers has risen to an astonishing level. Cast a torch across a good silage field at night time and you will see five badgers for every fox. So why kill a fox for a crime for which the badger is equally culpable? In that light, killing a one-off polecat hybrid feels bizarrely petty. Without any legal ability to manage (or even be near) badgers, the rationale for predator control feels increasingly skew-whiff.