Posted 4th Dec 2014
The nimble stoat is a rare sight to see yet they are prowling the countryside in abundance, using their incredible intelligence and skill to capture their prey, all the while disguising themselves from view
At this time of year, one of Britain’s most elusive creatures, the stoat, is bounding around the countryside at great speed in search of its prey, ravenously hungry like much of nature, but far fiercer in its search. The native stoat is a highly skilful predator closely resembling a weasel – though larger in size with a distinctive black tip to the tail – and is well known for its ruthless hunting tactics, killing its prey with a powerful single bite to the back of the head or neck. Part of a group of mammals known as mustelids, stoats are widely spread across Britain and Ireland, able to live in almost any habitat at any altitude where food is sufficient, and can be seen all year round, though actually spotting them can be tricky as they are so fast paced and very good at hiding from the likes of foxes and owls who predate them.
If you are lucky enough to see one then you’ll know it’s a stoat from its long, low-slung body growing up to 30cm in length – perfectly shaped for hunting with their small and flexible bodies able to wiggle down holes with ease – and orangey-brown coat with a creamy white throat and belly and distinctive black tail marking. In the north, and in mountainous areas, stoats can moult their normally brown coat come autumn and become completely white in colour. This is called ermine and allows the stoat to venture out during snowy spells without being spotted, allowing them to catch prey in all conditions which is vital to their survival, as stoats need to consume an astonishing 25 per cent of their own body weight each day. Females are most likely to change their colour though many don’t lose their entire brown coat, instead sporting a patchy and scruffy look from tail to nose, that reverses in direction when they moult again come spring.
Active both by day and night, these skittish animals thrive in areas of dense cover, particularly around stone walls and hedgerows where they can remain safely concealed. You may even have heard a stoat in hiding without realising it, as their high-pitched call is often mistaken for that of a bird chick, and is used to fend off other stoats when protecting their territory. As purely carnivorous creatures, stoats are natural born killers and prey on live small animals, mainly rabbits despite being many times their size, also preying on voles, mice, rats, birds, eggs and even earthworms when food is scarce. They are very agile mammals and can easily climb as well as swim, capable of crossing large expanses of water to get to their food. It is really no surprise that stoats are still heavily persecuted by gamekeepers, as the very curious creatures are well known for stealing eggs from game birds and venturing close to human habitation. Stoats may be a pest to some, but they are highly intelligent animals and could perhaps even be considered one of nature’s anomalies. With many tricks up their sleeve, one of their greatest stunts is their ability to be able to momentarily ‘hypnotise’ their victims before pouncing, by performing a strange ‘dance’ that stops rabbits in their tracks causing them to forget to run away – providing the perfect opportunity for the crafty stoat to strike with one swift bite, saving them the energy of any great chase. Their hunting method is just as clever, seeking their prey systematically along hedgerows, ditches and walls in a carefully mapped out zig-zag pattern, often taking over the nests of their prey as a den, particularly rabbit warrens, which the stoat will then use periodically between several other dens.
Read the rest of this feature on p.96 of the January/February 2015 issue of LandLove
By Natalie Crofts
Images courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts: Margaret Holland, Amy Lewis