By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 9 December 2013
Having written this blog (clearly in reverse given that I am now writing the introduction), my conclusion is that fierce things come in small, furry packages. When I need cheering up, watching the antics of this animal on nature videos works much better than chocolate. It’s adorable, endearing and lethal. I recommend this animal to you, should you ever be in the same position. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
1) The stoat must be one of the most charismatic animals I know. Anytime they feature in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, the focus of the image seems to be on its behaviour. Maybe antics is a better word. The stoat has a long, gracile body and relatively short legs, and yet they are incredibly agile. The majority of their fur is normally reddish-brown, whilst the belly and throat are white or cream. In the winter however, they move up in the aesthetics scale as (some individuals) turn partially or completely white with a black tip to the tail.
2) The stoat has evolved some epic skills is a predator and, despite its size, feeds on birds and other mammals such as rabbits, rodents and squirrels. It will strike a meerkat like pose when looking around- standing on its hind legs with its forepaws in the air. When prey is spotted, the stoat hunts in a queer fashion, zigzagging along the ground from piece of cover, to piece of cover, using walls, bushes, holes, etc, to hide itself. Once close enough, the stoat leaps on to the prey and sinks its teeth into the back of the neck. Dead.
3) The males are larger than the females but otherwise the two sexes are similar in appearance. The males are called bucks, dogs, hobs and jacks and the females are called bitches, does and jills. Why jack and jill? I don’t actually know, I was asking you. But I do know that the males and females live separately and will defend their territory against other individuals of the same sex. The territory of a female tends to be nearby where she was born. Males on the other hand have no such sentimentality and wander off to find a more distant ‘neck of the woods’ to call their own. Preferably one overlapping the territory of several females.
4) As I believe should be the case for humans, it is the male’s job to find and impress the females. In Spring, the male stoat sets off looking for a female, or two, before the short mating season occurs at the beginning of Summer. After a pair has ‘got jiggy’, the female can delay fertilisation of her eggs for up to nine months. The kits are therefore not normally born until the following Spring. Between six and 12 kits are born in a litter, and despite being blind and helpless at first, it only takes around eight weeks for them to begin hunting with their mother. It seems stoats are just made to be predators. That’s predators, not Predators. Perhaps in an effort to get the most out of life, the young female stoats, from the age of 60 to 70 days, can mate. That’s even before they have become weaned from their mother. Males on the other hand, become sexually mature much later, at between one and two years of age. On average, a stoat can expect to live until the age of five.
5) The stoat is not endangered, which feels like such a rarity in itself amongst the Animal Kingdom that I thought it was worth mentioning. They have a wide distribution within Britain and Ireland, as well temperate-cold areas within Europe, Asia and North America. It isn’t an overly fussy mammal in terms of environment type, which explains its ability to spread itself out geographically. Farmland, marshes, open moors and woodland are all favourites for the stoat.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology