Stoats and weasels

On holiday this summer, in Tanzania, I witnessed the most dramatic wildlife spectacle of my life. The loud squealing of a warthog led us to a scene of carnage as four lionesses squeezed the last breath out of the unfortunate pig. Within minutes the eerie hoots and calls of hyenas surrounded the area. Made confident by their superior numbers, they made their move. Driving off the lions, they squabbled noisily over the bloody remains as the light faded. But this was no edited wildlife film: we could smell the blood and make eye contact with these large predators from the safety of our Land Rover.

I was reminded of this incident a few days ago when I received a letter from Sheila Rowe after she had witnessed a similar scene. On this occasion, however, the warthog was a rabbit, the lions a single stoat and the hyenas two buzzards and a number of jackdaws. The stoat was attacking a large rabbit as a buzzard watched on. Having almost killed the rabbit, the stoat decided to move off, perhaps disturbed by Sheila or the relatively large raptor. The buzzard then finished the job, being subsequently joined by a further buzzard and several jackdaws.

Since launching a stoat and weasel survey of Cornwall (in conjunction with FWAG) earlier this year, I have received numerous anecdotal stories such as Sheila’s. The survey itself set out to establish the distribution of these mustelids and to work out a method of assessing population changes. We also aimed to raise the profile of these creatures, particularly within the farming community. Stoats and weasels are thought to have declined nationally, but no one to date has looked at the situation in Cornwall. The results of the survey, however, are far from ready from publication, although it’s looking to be successful with over 400 records received to date with a good distribution across the county.

Much of the anecdotal information received, although outside the aims of the survey, is nonetheless in itself fascinating. Several observers, for example, described stoats feigning death in order to escape capture. One such story recalls a stoat being caught by an ageing cat and being taken into a house. Upon being dropped, the animal promptly “came back to life”, taking refuge in a pair of discarded overalls. The garment was taken outside and shaken, whereupon the stoat made its escape. Many mustelids are not so lucky however - particularly weasels - and many of our records under line the vulnerability of these animals to predation by domestic cats. In addition, one record recounts how a weasel, recovered dead, was dropped from the beak of a rook. Although the creature was still warm, it was by no means certain that the bird had killed it.

A particularly interesting observation was made by Roger Penhallurick on the outskirts of Truro - a stoat in full ermine. Such sights are common in the northern parts of Britain, especially in Scotland, but very rare in Cornwall. Stoats turn white in winter in response to low temperatures, but only if their genes predispose them to this. In Cornwall the gene is obviously uncommon; presumably natural selection has removed ermine animals from the scene. With low snowfall in the county, such animals would be highly visible and therefore vulnerable to predation.

The survey is still under way and I look forward to receiving more interesting stories and observations. I would, of course, very much welcome records from Trust members, so please send me any you might have. The survey covers the period 1994 to 1997. Please state your name and telephone number, where you saw the animal, and when you made the observation, along with any field notes. A six-figure grid reference would be very useful, but failing this a place name that I can find on an OS map will do. The date of the sighting does not have to be accurate; the year alone or the year and season will suffice.
Many thanks in advance for any records you might send me and I look forward to giving you more details of our findings when the survey is complete in the spring!

Derek Lord has worked as a National Trust Area Warden in North Cornwall since 1988. His previous occupations have included survey work for the Otter Trust and British Deer Society. As a key recorder and specialist, he wrote the mammal section of Cornwall’s Red Data Book.

Weasel. Illustration: Derek Lord

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