Ferreting out true numbers of feral rodents

LAST SUMMER I got a phone call from a man who lives locally to say that he had picked up the body of an animal that had been killed on the road and he was having an argument with some of his friends about its identification.

Would I settle the matter, he asked?

I was interested because, from the description, it sounded as though it might be a pine marten. I’ve had recent reports suggesting that pine martens are colonising this part of North Kildare, where they’ve been absent since historical times. But identifying a dead animal over the phone is not an easy business so I asked the caller if he would bring the carcass round to my house.

Unfortunately, the man’s business delayed him for a couple of days and the weather was hot. The body he eventually took from the back of his pick-up truck was one of the smelliest objects I have ever encountered. There are times when zoology is not for the fainthearted.

It was also a little disappointing that it wasn’t the body of a pine marten but that of a feral ferret.

But ferrets are interesting creatures too and they’re the cause of some debate among mammal experts in Ireland at present.

They are domesticated versions of the western polecat. The western polecat is a wild member of the weasel family, about the same size and shape as a mink but much paler in colour, that occurs across Europe from the Ural mountains to Britain - though in Britain today they are only found in Wales and one or two surrounding English counties. It’s unlikely that they were ever a wild Irish species.

The domesticated animals are sometimes kept as pets but were originally used for hunting rabbits and, occasionally, rats. They are known to escape quite frequently and sometimes this results in viable wild breeding populations. These are called feral ferrets. In countries where wild polecats exist feral ferrets tend to be reabsorbed into the wild population. In countries like Ireland they remain distinct and are usually paler in colour than a wild western polecat.

There are two main colour forms. One is albino - white with pink eyes - more common in domestic than feral ferrets. The other has creamy coloured under fur with sparse guard hairs that are pale brown, sometimes with a slightly pink tinge.

At present it’s believed that there are feral ferret populations on Rathlin Island in Co Antrim and in an area of north Co Monaghan, near the Cavan border. There’s evidence that there may be another population on the west Waterford-east Cork border and, based on my smelly specimen from 2005, possibly one on the fringes of the Bog of Allen in north Kildare.

This is all a bit speculative, so the biologists have decided to get more definite information by carrying out a national feral ferret survey over the next couple of years - and they want your help. Surveys of this kind offer an excellent opportunity for amateur naturalists to make a real contribution to scientific knowledge.

All you have to do is to check out road kills and keep your eyes open for live ferrets and report this back to the survey organisers. They are also hoping to get actual ferret carcasses in the post - though hopefully in a better state of preservation than mine was in.

Of course, you have to know what to look for and be able to tell the difference between the various members of the weasel family. But the survey organisers have prepared plenty of material to make this easy for amateurs. If you’re interested in helping contact Daniel Buckley of Toames East, Macroom, Co Cork. His email is ferretsurvey@gmail.com and his mobile number is 086 3691982.


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