Farmers had been baling hay in a large sunny south-facing field in the county of Cornwall in England. The bales had been piled up like bricks, five or six at a time, around the field. Gradually, a team of men and boys with a tractor and trailer was collecting the bales to take them to a barn. Suddenly, their sheepdog, which enjoyed being involved in all the harvesting activity, was drawn to a pile of bales in the middle of the field. The dog, peering intently, stuck its head into a gap between the bales and was greeted by a volley of piercing shrieks. The dog, now highly excited, responded with barking and burrowed further into the gap. ‘Stop the dog, he’ll get his nose bitten off,’ yelled one of the farmers, suspecting the source of the shrieking and screeching. Amid all the commotion, the dog was yanked out of pile of bales which was then gingerly dismantled. Everyone gathered around, intrigued to discover the identity of the creature making such an awful noise. And there is was... a stoat, one of the elusive animals that populates the countryside.
The stoat quickly disappeared, rejoining its secretive relatives who live out their lives rarely seen by human eyes. Stoats don’t like to be out in the open, preferring to hunt along ditches, hedgerows or walls. They are similar to weasels but can always be recognized by the black tip to their tails. Their backs are brown and their undersides are white, although in colder climes they turn all-white in the winter. They molt in the spring and autumn. The fur from the white coat is known as ermine and was highly-prized by British royalty in the past.
Stoats, which have an inquisitive nature, are widespread across North America, Europe and Asia, with variations in their build and appearance in different countries. They are native to the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere but were also introduced as an alien species in New Zealand which has caused problems. Generally, male stoats, known as dogs, can grow up to about 30cm in length, with the females (bitches) being shorter. Male stoats are also heavier than their female counterparts, though both sexes remain long, slimline, quicksilver creatures.
A mammal, with the scientific name of Mustela erminea, the stoat has sharp teeth, black eyes, long whiskers, short ears, short legs and claws. Stoats are cunning carnivores and hunt both during the day and at night. Their prey can include rodents, rabbits, birds, fish, shrews, insects and worms. They also eat eggs and fruit. A stoat generally kills with an explosive single bite to the back of its victim’s neck. Although stoats are usually frightened off by humans, they could bite if they are cornered – so take care should you ever come across one. If stoats have a particularly successful hunting session, they will store surplus food for later consumption.
Stoats, being small creatures, are eaten by larger carnivores, such as foxes, and by owls and hawks. Stoats can live for up to seven or eight years but many fall victim to predators and the average life expectancy of the creatures is one to two years. As a defense mechanism, their scent glands give off a musky odor.
They mate in the spring and early summer, with even newborn females being sexually mature after only a few weeks. Stoats are one of the species that uses delayed implantation of fertilized eggs which leads to the young - the kittens or kits - being born in the following spring. The kittens are born blind, deaf, toothless and covered in down. There are usually between three and 12 in a litter and they huddle together for warmth in dens during the early weeks of life. Stoats don’t dig their own dens, preferring to move into burrows of animals they have killed or into other empty spaces such as old tree stumps, wood piles, under tree roots, haystacks and rock piles. A stoat will use several dens.
A few months after being born, young stoats leave their mother and have to fend for themselves. Before this, you may catch a glimpse of them hunting together, zigzagging as they go along. And, if you are very lucky, you may see them playing games to improve their hunting skills.
Each male stoat establishes a territory and marks it out using its scent. The stoat will defend this territory against other male stoats, with dominant older males having larger territories than their younger rivals. Female stoats live within these male territories. Usually a male and a female will live close to each other but not together, with the female being left to raise the kittens on her own. A stoat may mate with several other stoats during the mating season when the territorial system tends to break down.
Stoats are usually silent creatures but can trill, whine, bark and hiss. And, as those farmers in Cornwall discovered, they can certainly shriek and screech!