Picture the scene. It is 8.00pm on a Saturday evening. Across the country, people are sitting down to dinner and relaxing in their living rooms watching the football; or maybe they’re getting ready for a night on the town, an evening of drinking and dancing and laughing and loving and fighting.
I’m doing none of these things. I’m sitting perfectly still in a patch of nettles under an oak tree, somewhere in a field in Bedfordshire.
Let me backtrack. It being a Saturday, and having spent the day buying and installing a new washing machine, the sensible and normal thing to do would be to kick back and relax for a bit. Happily though, being sensible and normal were never my strong points. I decided to have a crack at spotting the stoat I’d seen the other day (see Stoat Crossing, 7th June), partly out of curiosity, partly to give the badgers a bit of a rest.
The problem is that I don’t know very much about stoats. I’ve seen them crossing the road a few times, and this has always been near a small copse about 500 yards from my house. This copse is home to numerous rabbits, the main prey of stoats. Since it provides food, shelter and protection, the copse seems like a good place for stoats to live.
One approach would be to walk around the area on a regular basis, and sooner or later I’d come across a stoat. But this isn’t very satisfactory. I want to observe them properly, to watch their behaviour and not just get a glimpse of their rear ends as they scurry away. So – some sort of static observation is called for.
Michael Clark, in his excellent book Mammal Watching, says that stoats and weasels tend to follow boundary lines such as hedges and walls. My plan was therefore to sit in the corner of a field and watch the hedgerows where the rabbits congregate.
The task was made simpler because most of the fields around here are full of oilseed rape, which is about two feet high now. There could be whole legions of stoats cavorting in these fields and I’d never spot them, so I chose a nice grass pasture and settled down in that.
The plan worked splendidly, apart from the bit that involved seeing any stoats. I spent a couple of hours watching rabbits hopping contentedly about in the field. These rabbits were, unknowingly, both my bait and the canaries in my coal mine. If a stoat approached and I failed to see it, I hoped that they would spot the predator and alert me by their reaction.
Perhaps they failed in their duty. I sat under my tree for two hours and saw no stoats. Nor, it seems, did they, for they carried on grazing happily. I’m not too disheartened. My first few badger watching trips ended in utter failure too. I imagine that stoats are relatively scarce, so the odds were against me seeing one the first time I looked. I’ll keep on trying and hopefully one day I’ll be able to report a success.