Stoats & Weasels

We see weasels quite often where we live. Seldom does a week pass without a sighting. There are two particular local hot spots. One is the lane we live on where it crosses a brook by the marsh. My wife drives our daughter down to school and will often see one dash across the road of a morning. The other lane is about a mile away that I often drive up or down coming or going about my work. Both lanes are bordered with hawthorn hedges and have pasture on either side. Kestrels are a common sight along these lanes, static hunting off the telegraph posts indicating there is a good supply of mice and voles. I doubt we’d see these weasels were it not for their frequent dashes across the road. One of my neighbours who lives further down the lane gets a weasel visiting his bird table and taking meat or fat scraps which surprised me. They seem to be doing well.

Sadly stoats aren’t as common here anymore. I only see one or two a year now, mainly by the shore where the rabbits are most numerous. There are one or two other places; always the same areas too. About eighteen months ago, not long after the harvest, I watched a stoat running along the high water mark amongst the debris washed in by the tide. It got scent of me or more likely my dogs, and dived into a rabbit warren on the cliff edge and didn’t emerge. I’d walked on about a mile when another one dashed across the pathway in front of me disappearing in the thick cover. I was quite surprised to see two in such a short space of time when I hadn’t seen any for so long. They were perhaps part of a family group born in the spring and now slowly dispersing. To my amazement I saw another later on, on that same day but several miles away as I was driving into Liverpool. It ran across a road by the old airport site and caused panic amongst some moorhens grazing alongside a pond.

I have a soft spot for both stoats and weasels and avoid harming them if I can. This is sometimes easier said than done. I’ve killed quite a few over the years, most unintentionally, with various dogs and hawks and have always felt a little sorry afterwards. As I type this article, sat in my little office, a stuffed stoat and weasel look down on me from one of the shelves. Both accidental kills passed on to a taxidermist friend. I can understand gamekeepers showing them no mercy as both are amongst nature’s most efficient killers. Neither species do me any harm so I’ve not intentionally hunted them for a long time. I can still recall the first one I ever caught. A youthful gang of four or five of us had disappeared off for the day with our pack of dogs and walked miles. We’d actually ended up not far from where I now live and were mooching around a pond looking for rats. A mongrel type rabbiting dog called Shane started digging at a hole in the bank. We guessed it was a rat and started to assist the dog by clearing the hole with sticks and a metal bar we’d found. I remember someone pulling Shane back as he’d blocked the hole up. As we cleared it, out flew a stoat straight at the dog. I’d never seen anything like it. It attacked the dog but paid with its life as Shane was a tough old killer. I carried that stoat all the way home, skinned it and cured the skin as I was into such things then. I reckon that was thirty five years ago and I still have that same perfect skin now, stored with some other pelts in my garage. It was a dog stoat too, so it wasn’t as if it was protecting young ones. What a brave animal the stoat is and one that’s fascinated me ever since.

Moss with the first stoat

Moss with the first stoat

A prolific fieldsports author wrote, on more than one occasion, that a stoat was no match for a rat. What nonsense! I once watched a stoat killing a rat, with the very minimum of fuss, in Frodsham, Cheshire. I was parked up watching some rabbits on a field through my binoculars. I was on a long netting reconnaissance mission. I’d seen a stoat in this area before, hunting rabbits amongst small beds of nettles. It dived into a clump of nettles and half grown rabbits shot out in all directions followed by the stoat dancing about wildly. I may have even mentioned it in one of these columns. This second occasion I spotted one pursuing something and then as I put my car window down heard the squeals of captured prey. I thought it was a baby rabbit that had fallen victim for there were still a few about despite it being September. Then the stoat made off across some parched ground carrying its prey and giving me a better view. I could clearly see it was a large rat. An internet ‘YouTube’ search will reveal several good quality amateur videos of both stoats and weasels killing rats with little trouble. When you see it with your own eyes then you know it’s true! I wonder how many people haven’t seen such a sight and readily believed the words in a book?

 

2.00p.m.

Sunday, 27th January, 2013.

I walked up the path at the back of my house with my Goshawk on my fist and Moss my lurcher cantering about in front of me. The path is lined with ash, oak, birch and willow trees and the ground cover is mainly bramble. Rabbits are thin on the ground now and what are about I’ve been trying to leave alone to hopefully breed.

It’s a flight or two on a pheasant that we are after today.

The last of the snow is thawing and the ground is quite flooded in places. The first of several ponds on our intended route has flooded over into the field and I can see Moss start to show an interest in some scent or other. She speeds up and pounces in some long grass and out shoots a stoat. Before I can try to shout her off she’s grabbed it in a sideward dive, lost her balance and gone tumbling over. A squeal and the pungent scent gland fills the cold air. She doesn’t hold it but snaps it up on the second attempt getting her nose bit in the process. The wound is like tiny pin pricks and Moss is really wound up, almost like when a fox gets her. Well I wasn’t expecting that surprise and once again I feel a little sad. I walk these fields and woods every day and like to think I know everything that’s about. In the eight years I’ve lived here this is not a spot I’ve ever seen a stoat in.

We move on and not long after, Moss points at a pheasant in some bramble. I tell her steady as I walk in with the Goshawk on my fist, its head bobbing side to side knowing what the dogs mannerisms mean. I give the command and in goes Moss to flush and out rockets a beautiful cock pheasant. The Goshawk is straight after it, climbing up under it, wings pumping, but the pheasant has gone into the wind so has a good chance of escape if it can reach the woods. The hawk is about a yard behind it, neither gaining nor losing ground, as they reach the wood and both disappear. I walk over not knowing the outcome of the flight and wondering whether to get the telemetry receiver out of my bag or not. Then I hear bells and spot the goshawk as she throws up from the ground into a tree inside the wood. She has missed it but may have the pheasant marked down in the cover beneath her. This is a tricky point as she may spot other quarry from the vantage of her tree perch. Quite a few squirrels have met their end this season from situations like this. I need to get her back down onto my fist but I note she’s spotted something as I step off the field and into the wood. A couple of flicks of the head, then her focus locks onto whatever it is and she drops like a stone. I fully expect it to be the pheasant that had made the cover but as I find and make in to her, I am surprised to see her with a stoat. I shake my head in disbelief. Two in a day. It’s actually two in the space of an hour and both killed unintentionally. The shooting lads on here will no doubt be pleased but I now feel doubly sad. I’d have much rather watched a stoat hunting something down rather than see one being hunted itself.

Pheasant hunting team comprising of father, daughter, veteran lurcher and white goshawk surveying the scene

Pheasant hunting team comprising of father, daughter, veteran lurcher and white goshawk surveying the scene

I’ve had a lot of pleasure watching stoats. I’ve bolted them from rabbit warrens when ferreting quite a few times. I once got down on my knees to peer under a large farm shed we were ferreting and found myself face to face with a stoat that was about to bolt. It went back under and didn’t re-emerge but several rabbits did followed by the ferret. I’ve seen one several metres up an ivy clad tree after, I presume, young pigeons on a nest. I’ve watched them doing their crazy dances and seen the wonderful sight of a bitch stoat leading her brood of young. Another time when concealed in a hide with a shooting friend we watched a rabbit run past us screaming all the while. We both exchanged puzzled glances, jumped out of our hide and watched where it went. It was completely oblivious to us and hopped aimlessly into a nearby log pile and continued to scream. A good few minutes later a stoat came bounding along clearly on the scent of the rabbit. It too completely ignored us, entered the woodpile and ended matters! I was once jogging and a weasel ran across my path just a yard or two in front of me, with her brood of well grown young ones following. I stopped to watch them and gave a little rabbit squeak with my lips. One of the young ones came running towards me. Suddenly realising it was on its own, it then seemed confused. To my amazement it took refuge against the instep of my running shoe as I stood watching. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and it did cross my mind to try and pick it up. Then the mother appeared and was making a kind of whistling or hissing sound. The youngster immediately dashed over and disappeared with her.

I’m sure other readers and contributors of the magazine will have had many encounters with these amazing animals. I’d love to hear any such stories and also if anyone actually intentionally hunts them? I know we also have some keen photographers and I wonder if any of them have managed to get a picture of a stoat or weasel hunting? I’d have much rather illustrated this article with a picture of a live one rather than Moss with a dead one. Do let us know.