From vermin to ermine

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A stoat in its winter white coat. Picture by Liz Hornby

I’m getting quite excited as it is approaching 29th March, the date when I will be able to pick up my tennis racquet again and play outdoors. Apart from not being able to see my mum, playing tennis has been one of the things I have missed most during the latest lockdown. I play in the village of Coxwold, which is not far from the ruins of Byland Abbey.

The road between Coxwold and Byland was mentioned by my dad in his column from 21st March 1981 when a reader contacted him suggesting they’d seen a stoat that Dad had talked about a few weeks earlier. The one Dad had seen had been totally white, with just the tip of its tail black.

Stoats can shed their fur, but normally only change colour if the conditions warrant it. So in colder climates where there is a lot of snow such as in North East Scotland, a stoat will shed its summer coat of chestnut brown, turning white to blend into its frosty surroundings. Further south, where winters are milder and there is little snow, they keep their brown coats so that again, they are more easily camouflaged within the landscape. It was unusual to see a pure white stoat as far south as North Yorkshire especially, as Dad says, the winter of 1980-81 was not particularly cold.

By the time the reader had spotted the stoat that he believed was the same one as seen by my dad, its summer coat had started to show through the white, and this patchy appearance is known as ‘piebald’. Some stoats keep their piebald coats throughout the year.

The white pelt of a stoat is known as ‘ermine’ and down the centuries it was a highly prized piece of fur, not just because it was soft and thick, but also because it was so hard to get hold of. Apparently, for the coronation of King George VI in 1937, 50,000 ermine pelts were imported from Canada just for the occasion.

I always get excited when I see a stoat dart across the road in front of me, as it doesn’t happen very often. But I’m usually confused as to whether it is a stoat, or its relative, the weasel. I wasn’t very sure of the difference but, as is often the case, my research for this column has served to educate me.

The stoat and the weasel both belong to the ‘mustelid’ family of mammals, which refers to those that have long bodies and short legs, and otters and mink are also mustelids. Although their colourings are similar, the stoat is larger than the weasel, at between 24-32cm in length, with a tail ranging from 9-14cm. The weasel, on the other hand, is the UK’s smallest carnivore, at just 17-22cm long, with a shorter tail of just 3-5cm.

Often, we just get a quick flash of them when we spot them in the countryside, so what you need to look out for is the way they run. Stoats have a bounding gait, arching their backs as they go. Weasels, on the other hand, simply run, keeping their bodies flat and close to the ground. Also, if it has a black tip at the end of its tail, then it is definitely a stoat.

Both species are common throughout the UK, and can been seen all year round. They are fearsome hunters, and can kill animals much larger than themselves. Despite its diminutive size, a stoat will kill a rabbit with a single bite to the base of its skull. Weasels, because they are so small, raid the tiny burrows of small rodents, like mice, to catch their prey. Both can be seen hunting day and night.

Another fact I discovered while researching this column is that mink are not native to this country, but were imported from America and bred in fur farms, from which they escaped in the 1950s and 60s. As they were such excellent hunters and breeders, with a long lifespan of up to 12 years, they soon established themselves and are now quite prolific. They are a threat to our native water vole, the females being small enough to raid the burrows of these little rodents. Wildlife conservation organisations are on the case though, so hopefully our watery native might once again bounce back.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 26th and the Gazette & Herald on 24th  March 2021

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