A weasel is weasily identifiable, whereas a stoat is stoatally different

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The stoat has a mesmerising effect on those who spot it and Dorset may be a perfect habitat. But they remain a mystery, says wildlife writer Jane Adams

I saw a stoat the other day. The heavens had just opened, and it appeared on the road just as I was sheltering under some trees at the side of a small wood. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Its sinewy body and short little legs seemed to flow up the road like a furry brown wave breaking again and again over the tarmac. Then it was gone.

Vital exuberance
Stoats are part of the mustelid family, a group of meat-eating mammals that include the weasel, polecat, pine marten, otter and badger. Weasels look very similar to stoats, but at roughly 20 rather than 30 centimetres long, weasels are much smaller, and their shorter tail also lacks the stoat’s distinctive black tip.
It would be interesting to know how many stoats live in Dorset; with its rich mosaic of woodlands, heaths and farmland, it seems the perfect place for them to thrive. It’s also home to their favourite prey of voles, shrews and rabbits – despite the latter often being twice their size!
Yet, the precise number – just like the mammal itself – remains a mystery.
Culturally, the snow-white winter pelts of stoats with black-tipped tails, known as ermine, were not only favoured embellishments for royal ceremonial garments but also carried significant symbolism in ancient heraldry.
Our local stoats stay brown-furred and white-bellied year round, as Dorset lacks the cold winter climate needed to trigger a colour change. Nevertheless, the UK permits gamekeepers and poultry farmers to trap and kill them under licence, and in some countries stoats are still farmed for their valuable fur.
A few years ago, a friend phoned me, bubbling over with excitement about a family of stoats that had taken up residence in his garden log pile. They played, he told me, with such utter exuberance and vitality – bouncing, twisting and slithering between the logs. He swore it was the most joyful thing he had ever witnessed.
So, please raise a glass to the remarkable stoat. Long may it remain a wild enigma … and stoatally different.

‘the stoat is bigger than the weasel, and can also be identified by the black tip to its tail’
  • Stoat facts
  • Stoats hunt along hedgerows, walls and ditches, avoiding wide open spaces.
  • Females can delay embryo implantation (called embryonic diapause) for nine to ten months in order to give birth to up to 12 young (kits) during the most favourable environmental conditions.
  • In August, kits born in the spring are starting to become more independent and hunt for themselves, so may be seen more often.
  • Male stoats are called dogs, hobs or jacks. Females are known as jills. Their collective name is a gang or pack.
  • As well as voles, shrews and rabbits, they will also eat amphibians, reptiles, birds, eggs, fruit and earthworms.
  • They use the nests of their prey as dens, and are known to line them with rodent fur during cold weather.

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