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Weasels and Stoats

by Janet Denney

Tom’s Aunt Ella used to say that it is easy to tell the difference between weasels and stoats – “weasels are weasily recognised and stoats are stoatally different”! I seem to see fewer weasels than stoats in Ryedale – most weasel sightings are an occasional flash of a small brown body hurtling across the road in front of the car, looking rather like a super-charged clockwork toy.

We seem to see more stoats – Tom was even lucky enough to see a pure white one up on Rosedale moor whilst seeking the reported snowy owl! Apart from watching a stoat roll a pheasant’s egg across the road near Fadmoor, my two closest views have been here in our garden at Sykes House.

One Summer afternoon, a few years ago, we watched a field vole zigzagging its way across the grass in front of the house, up on to the patio and through our kitchen door. A stoat, obviously hunting, was following a couple of yards behind, tracing the zigzag path of the vole’s scent. Had the stoat simply looked up, seen the vole, and gone straight for it, the vole would have been caught easily – a clear example of use of scent over sight. The stoat suddenly noticed our presence and quickly disappeared back down the garden. Soon after, the vole ran out of the kitchen and away, having survived being stalked, at least on this occasion.

My second close encounter happened as I sat on our garden seat, nursing a mug of coffee, and watched a stoat play in a pile of logs near the house. I believe it may have been a youngster, out exploring, and it was an attractive sight as it playfully danced and pounced in and out of the log pile. My previous impression that stoats don’t see too well was borne out when this youngster danced across the grass to within a couple of feet, stopped and gazed up at me. Its eyes were a pale, icy blue and it stayed, staring blankly up at me for what seemed at least a minute. Eventually I moved and it ran away.

Stoats, of course, are fierce predators of rabbits and birds, as well as being rather unpopular with gamekeepers. However, I do enjoy watching them and hope to have many more close encounters.

Oh yes, the main weasily seen and stoatal differences are:
Weasel (Mustela nivalis) smallest European carnivore – head and body about 20 cm, tail 6 cm, reddish brown above, white below.
Stoat (Mustela erminea) – head and body 22–32 cm, tail 8–12 cm with black tip, reddish brown above, white tinged with yellow below, i.e. the stoat is larger than the weasel and has a longer tail with a black tip. Only the stoat turns white in winter.

[Ed: I have watched a stoat following the scent rather than using its eyes in a very similar encounter, though in my case it was chasing a rabbit, which also got away.]

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