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Stoats and Weasels

John A Burton

Back in the early 1960s I was Mammal Recorder for the London Natural History Society, and produced some of the first detailed distribution maps for mammals. A feature that was immediately obvious was that there were a disproportionate number of observations of weasels and stoats. By contrast observations on very abundant species such as voles and field mice were few and far between. The reason was easy to establish: weasels and stoats were seen by bird watchers. They are a mammal of the middle distance, and they can be 'weasily distinguished because they are stoatally different' through a pair of binoculars. The tiny weasel is a mouse predator, but the larger stoat with its black-tipped tail is a fierce predator, with rabbits as a favourite prey. They are a true vampire, going for the jugular, and feeding on blood.

Stoats - above right, Weasel - below right

If you see either weasels or stoats (or for that matter any of their relatives such as polecats and mink) it is often possible to get them to come very close. As soon as you see them freeze. Don't move at all, keep arms tucked in (this give you a less human outline). Then start to 'squeak', sucking in through tight lips, making as high-pitched noise as possible. Or if you have one, use the American Audubon Society bird squeakers, but keep your arms in front, so as not to break your silhouette. This sound, which presumably reminds stoats and their relatives of the squeals of an injured animal such as a rabbit, will often cause them to come closer. It is not impossible to get them right up to your feet.

I have never had the opportunity to test it out on polecats, but this species is spreading its range, having been exterminated over most of England by 19th century gamekeepers. Once confined to a small area of Wales, it is gradually moving east. Birdwatchers are just as likely as mammalogists to spot these and several other species, but don't forget to let your county mammal records know if you see any.