Wild About... Weasels and Stoats
|Features||Living arrangements||Food||Behaviour||Relationship to Man||Tracks|
Weasels and Stoats are very similar to each other; weasels on the one hand have fur, of which the majority is ginger/brown in colour, and cream underneath. They have a long slender body and a short tail. Their head to body length is between 19-20cm for males while females are slightly smaller, between 17-18cm.
Stoats also have a long slender body with short legs. Their fur is reddish brown to ginger above, and white underneath, however in winter some animals may turn white when the animal is sometimes known as an ermine! The main difference between stoats and weasels is that the stoats tail has a black tip. Also the stoat is slightly larger than the weasel with a head to body length of between 27-31cm for males and 24-29cm for females.
The weasel is found throughout Britain, however they are absent from Ireland and other islands off shore. Weasels will live in any habitat where their small prey is found, for example, urban areas, lowland pasture, woodland, marshes and moors. However, weasels are less common at higher altitudes.
Stoats are found throughout Britain and Ireland, and unlike weasels are found at all altitudes as long as there is sufficient ground cover and food. The home of the weasel and the stoat is called a den. The dens of both are often former nests of their prey- which they have eaten before hand! In cooler climates stoats and weasels often line their dens with rodent fur from prey. Weasels dens will also usually contain the remains of food from past meals. Both species will usually have several dens, which they will use at different times in the year.
Both weasels and stoats are carnivores- which means that they eat a meat diet! When searching for prey they will follow a regular route normally along hedgerows and fences. Prey is usually killed by a bite to the neck.
The weasels main source of food is small prey, for example, mice and voles, although they may also eat birds, eggs, and rabbits. Due to their small size weasels are able to run after mice and voles through their tunnels, ensuring there is no means of escape!
Stoats also feed on small mammals, such as rabbits, mice and water voles. When food is scarce they will also feed on birds, eggs and earthworms. A stoat needs to eat at least two to three water voles or mice a day- that is an amazing third of their own body weight!
When there is an abundant of food both species will kill more prey than needed and will store the food in an cache to be eaten later.
Predators of both species include hawks, owls, foxes, cats and mink. However more deaths will probably arise form food shortage.
Male (dogs) and female (bitches) weasels live in separate territory, and their home ranges will vary in size according to the distribution and density of prey. However in spring, males will extend their home ranges to seek mates.
Weasels will usually produce two litters of between four to six young. Young are weaned at 3-4 weeks and are able to kill and catch prey at eight weeks, but they will normally not leave the family den until 9-12 weeks. On average only one out of 80-90 weasel survives to over two years. This is due to predators and food shortage.
Male and female stoats live separately and will mark their territory with scent. They will defend this territory against intruders however in spring, the male will leave its territory in search for the female!
Females and males mate in the summer, and length of pregnancy is usually four weeks, and between 6-12 young is born. Young called kits, are born blind, deaf and with no fur. By the age of twelve weeks the young are capable of killing and hunting food on their own.
Relation to Man
Both species are regarded as pests by gamekeepers and poultry farmers where the stoat and weasel can quite easily get into pens and kill all the birds. This is typical behaviour of carnivores where there is an abundant of prey and the animals are trying to stock up on food. Sometimes gamekeepers will use traps to deter them
Although both species have a natural high mortality rate, neither of them are protected in Britain, although the stoat is protected in Ireland. Both species are capable of taking up residence in abandoned areas- as long as there is plenty of food available!
Tracks and signs
Due to their smallness of size and speed, weasels and stoats are very hard to spot. The easiest way to spot them is by the presence of droppings. Weasels droppings are thin, tapering and are usually 6mm long and 3mm in diameter, while stoats droppings are 8mm long and 5mm in diameter.
Footprints are hard to spot, but if you do see them both will show five toe marks with one large pad in the middle of the paw. Weasels footprints are smaller in size. The best time to spot footprints is when there is snow on the ground!
Weasels and stoats have a curious nature, and by making a squeaking noise by sucking air through closed lips or kissing the back of your hand you may attract stoats or weasels to you!
Text adapted from Leicestershire County Council's Environment and Heritage Service's handout