Meet the stoat

Stoats belong to the family Mustelidae and the sub-family Mustela. Although rarely observed the stoat is our commonest and most widespread native carnivore, they occur throughout Britain and Ireland. 

Carnivore means flesh {meat} eater and derives from the Latin caro meaning flesh + vovare to consume. The species name of erminea refers to stoats in northern regions where it often has a white coat { with a black tipped tail} during winter. It also refers to the pelt { fur} of this animal.

The stoat is a beautiful animal.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Hillebrand {USFWS}

Description of stoat-M.erminea

Males tend to be around 40 cm from nose to tip of tail, while females are smaller at 35 cm.

Stoats are twice the size of weasels. The fur is of a sandy brown colour above and creamy or yellowish white below. The tip of the tail is black a good diagnostic feature {if you are lucky enough to it !}. The tail is long 8-10 cm and thin.

The body is sinuous and slender which enables the animal to follow small mammals such as voles and moles into their burrows. Stoats have a keen sense of hearing, and the long facial whiskers help them to navigate their way through dark narrow situations.

Stoats are territorial and mark out their territorial boundaries with their droppings known as scats which may be recognised by the remains of fur and feathers among them. the scats are about 4-10 cm long, black, and somewhat smelly, however, they are not easy to find. If they are encountered they may be on a rock or log.

Stoats have a mecurial temperment. This has led rise to them acquiring a bad reputation for being devious and skillful killers.   In the most northern regions noted for snowfall the stoat may change its coat colour to white.This fur is known as ermine and is highly valued to adorn the robes of Royalty and senior Judges in days gone by.

STOAT -With its white winter coat which is highly valued for adorning robes. Note the black tipped tail remains even when the fur has changed colour.

Photograph courtesy of Steven Hint, Creative Commons Attribution. 

Stoat. Lifestyle and Breeding

The stoat finds its home in a variety of places such as crevices in rocks and dry stone walls, rubble covered in vegetation, among tree roots or the burrows of other creatures such as the bank vole and their ilk, usually after they have eaten the tenant concerned. Stoats are notorious enemies of the game keeper, especially those that have pheasant and other game birds in their charge. both chicks and eggs of such birds are readily taken.

There are records of eggs being horded by stoats for future use. The amazing thing about these records is the fact that the eggs were still intact despite the distance away from their original location. Stoats will also eat insects, sometimes amphibians and reptiles, rabbits, small mammals and rabbits. they also do a great service by killing rats and mice.

This skilful killer often takes prey much larger than itself , rabbits being a prime example of this. The prey is despatched by a lethal bite to the base of the victims skull. Large prey will be dragged back to a secure place of concealment. After a kill, and the mammal has eaten it will spend long periods curled up in burrows, rock crevices, under rocks or in hollow trees. 

Stoats kill much larger prey than themselves.

Photograph courtesy Nigel Mykura--Creative commons atribution

The breeding season occurs from July to mid-August, however, the eggs within the female do not begin to develop until 10 months later, thus she will give birth the following April or May. {the actual gestation period is about four weeks} This phenomena is known as "delayed implantation".

The litter consists of between 3-10 as a rule; the kits are born blind. Their eyes open at about 4 weeks. The fine whitish fur grows much thicker around the nape of the neck. This allows the mother to pick them up and carry them without risk of injury to the kits by her needle sharp teeth.

They are weaned at around 6-8 weeks old. The black tip of the tail , only starts to emerge at about 6 weeks old. The female may be encountered with her kits for a further 6 weeks or so before they disperse. { this fact often leads to the mistaken belief that the stoat hunts in packs}. Kits are inquisitive and very playful.  at the age of 3 months the kits are independent and efficient hunters.

Despite this fact they often fall victim to equally efficient hunters, such as the fox, domestic cats and birds of prey particularly owls. 

When a stoat is under attack it will lift its tail high in the air in a swishing manner which often confuses the predator concerned. By using this method the stoat often avoids capture. 

A young stoat-Photograph courtesy of James Lindsey Creative commons attribution

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