Posts Tagged ‘weasel’

Summer sunsetIf you’re looking at this page in the hope of reading about badgers, I’m sorry.  I’m afraid I’ve been very busy lately.  We had Scarlett’s Christening on Sunday, and a very pleasant day it was too, but it did take a certain amount of time in preparation.  I haven’t had a chance to see how the badgers are doing lately.  All I had time for over the weekend was a gentle stroll in the field behind my house.

The field behind my house is in most respects an ordinary field, much as you would find anywhere in lowland Britain.  It is a big field, about a quarter of a mile on each side.  A road runs up the south side, a hedgerow and a footpath on the west, another footpath and a small copse on the north. The hedges are interspersed with grand old oak trees.  My house and garden is on the east.  The hill is on a low rise, the soil on the lower slopes being sand with clay; on the higher slopes it is almost pure sand.  At the moment the field is under oil seed rape, but it was under wheat last year.

It’s an ordinary field – you probably drive past hundreds just like it – but it’s special to me because it is next to where I live.  More than that, though, I’m always surprised by the wildlife that either lives in or passes through it.  I regularly track a badger that walks a beat up the northern path.  The edges of the field are home to numerous rabbits, and the runs and latrines of voles can be found in many places.  Chinese Water Deer are common inhabitants (invisible now that the rape has grown up) as are muntjac near the hedgerows.  A herd of fallow deer passes through every week or two, and we even have the odd roe deer, quite a rare species here in Bedfordshire.

This is what makes it special.  It’s an ordinary field but I’m starting to learn its secrets.  I’d recommend this to anyone.  Find a local patch, even if it’s in a park or a piece of scrub, and keep visiting it.  I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the wildlife it holds.

It’s been gloriously sunny for almost three weeks now.  The ground is parched (as is my vegetable garden) and baked hard.  A better tracker than me, or one with more patience, could maybe track animals in the dust, but I had neither the time nor the skill on Sunday evening.  I think I’ll have to get out one evening and just spend an hour or so lying down and looking at the ground.  I’ve found that when tracking it always takes me a little while to ‘get my eye in’.  It isn’t something you can rush.  The neighbours will think I’m even more mad than usual, but an evening of lying in a field sounds quite enjoyable at the moment.

One thing that I did come across on my stroll was quantities of dung.  I suppose I should use the correct tracker’s term and call it scat.  Usually I only see the scat of rabbits, voles and foxes in this field.  Fox scat is quite distinctive because they tend to leave it in conspicuous places as a territorial marker – on a rock, a molehill or a tuft of grass.  But on Sunday I came across some new scat that I hadn’t seen before.  The scale in the pictures is in cm.

Unknown scat 1

It was from a carnivore.  You tell that by the thin shape and the pointed ‘tail’ at the end.  It was similar in shape to a fox’s, but much smaller.  There were five or six individual droppings spread out over an area of a few square yards at the top of the field.

Unknown scat 2Taking a stick, I teased one apart (first dead polecats, now poo.  I get through so much anti-bacterial handwash you wouldn’t believe it!)  The scat was composed entirely of hair.  It looked like rabbit hair to me.  There were no bones, so whatever made it hadn’t been eating mice or voles.  I’d expect to find bone fragments if they had.

Unknown scat 3Why so much fascination with animal poo?  OK – follow my reasoning here.

The animal that left these was a carnivore.  It was significantly smaller than a fox, and it had been eating rabbit regularly.  I’m familiar with domestic cats, and it didn’t come from one of those.  This narrows it down to one of the small mustelids – weasel, stoat or polecat.  There are no other possible predators it could be from.

Weasels will eat rabbits, but they more commonly prey on mice and voles.  Since there were no mouse or vole bones in the scats I examined, I think we can rule out weasel.  Besides, they were a bit big for a weasel scat.

That leaves polecat or stoat as the only serious candidates.  Both of these will take rabbits regularly, particularly stoats.  The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails & Signs has this to say about stoat scat:

‘Dark, irregular and elongated.  They are 4-8cm long and there are characteristic twists of fur at each end of the faeces, which are coiled and twisted within themselves.  They have a strong, musty smell when fresh but weather to an odourless grey with time.  They contain a wide variety of mammal, bird and reptile remains’

And polecats:

‘Slightly coiled, often twisted and with tapering ends.  Up to 7cm long, about 0.5cm in diameter.  Contain bone and fur fragments.  Often in regular latrines’.

Very interesting. Either of these could fit the bill perfectly.  My money would be on the stoat, simply because they are much more common than polecats.  I’ve been fascinated by stoats for ages, and I’ve love to get a good look at one.  Based on the evidence, it seems that I’ve at least one stoat resident in the field behind my house.

And this is the point of this post really.  It shows what can be discovered if you’re patient and prepared to look.  I had a gentle stroll on a summer evening and by the end of it I had strong evidence of stoats in the neighbourhood.  OK – I had to sift through a certain amount of animal poo to find it, but it was there.  Now I have a spot I can focus on and hopefully get to see the stoat properly one day.  As I always say, the wildlife is out there.  It’s just a question of finding enough pieces of the jigsaw.

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The weekend before last I went out into the snow, and amongst the tracks were a set that puzzled me.  The gait was very like a rabbit or a squirrel – a bounding gait with all four paws together in a group.  The size as very small though – bigger than a mouse (and a mouse wouldn’t bound) and yet much smaller than a rabbit or even a squirrel.

I have been consulting the guidebooks and I think I have a suspect.  Bang and Dahlstrom’s Animal Tracks and Signs has this to say about stoat tracks “Walking prints are very rare, as they move exclusively by jumping.  On reasonably hard ground, such as solid snow, the tracks in jump groups may be four and four, often similar to a small hare.”   The Hamlyn Guide to Animal Tracks, Trails and Signs, adds that the stride length for a bounding stoat is typically 30cm.  Weasel tracks are smaller with a stride of 25-30cm.

Tentative stoat tracks in snow

Tentative stoat tracks in snow

The stride length of my tracks is about 20cm, so a little short, but otherwise the size and gait fits a stoat or weasel.  I can’t find anything else that fits the tracks, so at the moment I’m settling for stoat or weasel as a tentative i.d.

This is exciting stuff.  I have a thing about stoats (and weasels).  I’ve only ever seen these secretive little mustelids a few times, and any evidence that they’re at large in the area is good news for me.

I must be the only person in Britain at the moment wishing for more snow so that I can go and look for more tracks…

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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 hoursNot a stoat but a rabbit doing guard duty 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.

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Today I saw a stoat as I was driving into town. It crossed the road in front of me, about 200 yards from my house. You can tell a stoat by the black tip on its tail. Weasels’ tails are the same colour all along.

OK, I know it isn’t a badger, but I find stoats and weasels fascinating. I’ve seen badgers hundreds of times, but only a handful of stoats. Anyway, they’re the same family as badgers (mustelidae) so they’re not that far off.

Now that I know there’s one in the area I’ll have to make a few trips to the copse at the end of our road and see if I can’t get a better look. Who knows, this could be the start of a whole new career as the Stoat Watching Man…

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