In 1566 an Act of Parliament made churchwardens responsible for the destruction of what the Act described as ‘Noyfull Fowles and Vermin’. Among the many birds and animals considered to be pests deserving of extermination were moles, hedgehogs, foxes and polecats. Gamlingay’s churchwarden accounts survive, with a few gaps, from 1608 to 1745, and almost all of them include payments made for slaughtering vermin. All you had to do to claim the statutory reward was to present the head or carcase of the animal or bird you had killed to either of the two churchwardens elected to serve each year.
In 1710/11 William Barker was one of the Gamlingay churchwardens. It was a bad year for the vermin of the parish, because the accounts of William Barker largely consist of cash paid out to two indomitable exterminators who regularly knocked at his door. John Webb specialised in hunting down polecats – weasel-like creatures, mostly nocturnal in their habits. Polecats eat small mammals, particularly rabbits, but they will also take birds and their eggs, and have a liking for invading chicken-roosts, which is no doubt why they were considered vermin.
The ferret is a domesticated descendant of the polecat. Polecats produce a strong musky scent from their anal glands when threatened, and also use it to mark out their territories. As if the pong isn’t bad enough, polecats also have incredibly strong jaws, and once they have locked them on to something (or someone) it is almost impossible to prise them apart. Nonethless, despite the assaults on his sense of smell and the danger to his extremities, John Webb presented the churchwarden with no less that 37 dead polecats during his year of office, mostly single polecats, although on seven separate occasions he turned up with two.
The going rate for a deceased polecat was 4d, which means that John Webb earned himself a nice little bonus of 12s. 4d. for his efforts. Robert Grey, on the other hand, concentrated his efforts on reducing the number of foxes and badgers in the parish.
Spelling the word ‘badger’ proved beyond the powers of most churchwardens: William Barker’s version came out as ‘backet’. Grey provided Barker with the heads of five of the badgers he received that year, and all of the foxes – twelve in all. It was a lucrative business at a shilling a head, and Robert Grey pocketed the tidy sum of seventeen shillings from the churchwarden.
In all, William Barker forked out for 37 polecats, 9 badgers, 2 hedgehogs and 12 foxes. If the other (identity unknown) churchwarden paid out roughly the same amount – a not unreasonable assumption – then it really was a bad year for Gamlingay’s mammal population.
Before you ask, no, I don’t know what the churchwardens did with the heads or carcases of these creatures. Perhaps ex-churchwardens could be identified by their coats lined with polecat fur and waistcoats and trousers made of moleskin. Churchwardens were supposed to burn or destroy the vermin presented to them, but little was ever wasted if it could be avoided. The result of having a price on their heads along with later persecution by Georgian and Victorian gamekeepers was that by the nineteenth century the polecat population of Britain wasr educed to around 5,000. Ironically, the polecat is now a protected mammal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and it is gradually recolonising the countryside. Current numbers are estimated to be around 46,000.