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Wildlife watch: the stoat

David Chapman / 12 April 2022

The stoat is an animal which can baffle its prey and disappear in a split second.

The stoat, photographed by David Chapman

Slender, sinuous, slight and swift the stoat is an animal which can baffle its prey and disappear in a split second. It never ceases to amaze me that such a frenetic ball of life can be squeezed into such a tiny form.

Mustelids in the UK

The stoat belongs to the mustelid family which in Britain has seven members: badger, otter, mink, polecat, pine marten and weasel. This family is characterised by their long bodies, short legs and a selection of smelly scent glands. The only two which can be confused are the stoat and weasel.

How to tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel

In both the weasel and stoat males are bigger than females so there is quite a variation in size but if we compare males the stoat is on average 30cm long with a tail of 11cm whilst the weasel is 20cm long with a much shorter tail of about 6cm. It is difficult to distinguish between the two species on size alone. The best way to tell them apart is to look at the tail. The tail of the stoat is clearly longer in proportion to its body and it has a black tip, the tail of the weasel is brown along its length.

Both weasels and stoats have long, sinuous bodies. In terms of pelage the two species are similar, both have a chestnut-brown back though the belly and neck of the stoat is creamy whilst that of the weasel is white. The margin between the white and chestnut is less regular in the weasel which may also show a brown cheek spot on the throat.

In winter they both moult into a thicker coat and some stoats change their colour completely to white. This is an adaptation to assist their camouflage in regions often covered in snow but some stoats even in the south of England occasionally moult into this coat of ermine.

The mustelids come in a whole range of sizes because they have each evolved to play a different role in the ecosystem. Being extremely small weasels are well adapted to hunting mice, voles and shrews. Weasels are able to follow these small prey into their burrows but stoats cannot so they have to take larger prey and through incredible strength and tenacity they are able to take astonishingly big animals (relative to their size).

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Stoat behaviour

I can clearly remember an occasion some twenty-five years ago when I first saw a stoat killing a rabbit. Typical of these kills, the stoat had bitten the rabbit on the back of the neck and was holding on until the rabbit died. In the meantime there can be a frenzy of activity as the rabbit kicks out.

The difference in size between the rabbit and the stoat struck me particularly when the rabbit had been killed, the stoat then strained to move the dead weight to somewhere safer. The average weight of a stoat is about 260 grams for a rabbit it is about 1800 grams, it took the stoat about half an hour to move the rabbit to the edge of the track. I was left in no doubt about the persistence, ingenuity and sheer strength of this hyperactive character.

This hyperactivity is common to both weasel and stoat. The stoat in particular is known for a strange dance. At times it performs acrobatics to mesmerise its prey but at other times the purpose of this ‘dancing’ isn’t fully understood. One possible explanation is an infection of a particular type of nematode which causes fitting.

As well as taking rabbits stoats will take rodents, birds and eggs. This brings them into conflict with gamekeepers who rear pheasants, partridges and grouse, so it isn’t uncommon to find stoat traps on grouse moors for example.

Both weasels and stoats live in a mixture of habitats, really they can be found wherever there is suitable prey. On higher ground stoats are commoner than weasels but both can be found on farmland, woodland, marsh, shoreline and in gardens particularly those that border open country.

They like a variety of crevices into which they can disappear so hollow trees, burrows, stone walls and rock crevices are enticing for them. Those of us who want to see stoats in our gardens should aim to encourage their prey species, which means we shouldn’t use poisons to kill rodents. We can also do our best to provide a range of suitable hidey-holes in walls and banks for example.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.