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Conservationists on the hunt for rare polecats in Sussex
Conservationists are on the hunt for a rare animal – especially those found dead by the side of the road.
After becoming extinct in the late 19th Century due to hunting from gamekeepers, polecats returned to Sussex a decade ago.
With conservationists claiming numbers are still low, a widespread search has now begun to try and pin down how successful the recolonisation has been.
Wildlife experts are now calling on members of the public to keep an eye out for the long thin animals which have distinctive bandit-like masks.
But, with polecats being nocturnal and not emerging during the day, most of the sightings are those which are found dead at the side of the road.
Jess Price, conservation officer at the Sussex Wildlife Trust, said: “Polecats were once a common feature of the Sussex countryside, but persecution from game keepers caused their population to plummet and they became extinct in much of England.
“Conservation efforts, along with an increase in rabbit numbers, have allowed the polecat to recover, but not fully.
“The 2004 to 2006 national survey found that polecats have made it back into Sussex after an absence of over a century.
“However they are still very rare and it is difficult to know the true extent of their recolonisation because the population is not pure.”
Polecats are members of the Mustelid family, which includes otters, stoats and pine martens.
They have long, thin bodies and are generally dark in colour.
Their most distinctive feature is a black band that runs across their eyes, highlighted with white on the forehead and muzzle.
Polecats are often mistaken for ferrets, a similar animal which was domesticated more than 2,000 years ago in Southern Europe to hunt vermin.
Due to their genetic similarity, the two can cross-breed to create polecat-ferret hybrids.
It was only through DNA testing of an animal found dead at the roadside in Midhurst in July 2004 that the return of the polecats to the county was confirmed.
As Vincent Wildlife Trust carries out its third national polecat count, it is looking for as many samples of pole- cat/polecat-ferret carcasses as possible.
To help, call 01531 636441 or email enquiries @vwt.org.uk.
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