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Stoat (Mustela erminea)

Perhaps our most potent predator, stoats can take on prey more than five times their size.

Also known as: Ermine (white variation)

Scientific name: Mustela erminea

Family: Mustelidae

Appearance

Stoats have a long, thin body with a sandy-brown to chestnut-coloured coat and white-cream underparts. The best way to tell them apart from the closely-related weasel is the tail. A stoat’s tail is longer - around half the length of its body - and ends in a black tip. A weasel’s tail is proportionally much shorter and wholly brown. Stoats are also larger, with a typical whole body length of 30-40cm, compared to 20-27cm for weasels.

Stoats may turn white in winter, particularly in northern parts of the UK where snow is more common, but the black tip on the tail will remain.

Where and how to spot

Stoats are found throughout the UK and can survive in almost any habitat, provided there is sufficient food and cover. They are not easy animals to spot, but if you have the patience to sit and watch a rabbit warren, you may be rewarded with a view of a stoat looking for its next meal. When moving around, the predators tend to follow linear features, such as hedgerows, ditches or dry stone walls, so keep an eye on these too and you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse.

Feeding

Rabbits are the stoat’s main prey item, despite being significantly larger. Male stoats weigh an average of around 370g, while females average just 240g. With adult rabbits weighing 1-2kg, this means stoats can take down prey five times their size or more. The species will also take rodents, as well as birds and their eggs.

Behaviour and breeding

Stoats are solitary for most of the year, only coming together to breed. A litter of around 6 to 12 young, known as kits, are born in spring, with the female caring for the young until they are self-sufficient after around 12 weeks.

Threats

Gamekeepers may kill stoats due to predation of gamebirds. The species is thought to be widespread and common, but there are concerns the UK population may be declining, with the loss of hedgerows (a favoured habitat) possibly a contributing factor.

Did you know?

• Stoats are excellent climbers and will climb trees to raid bird’s nests.

• It is often claimed that stoats ‘mesmerise’ rabbits by thrashing their body around in a strange dancing motion.

• Stoats are legally protected in Ireland, but not the UK.