My spring traps have been ticking over for the past few months, and although I am regularly catching weasels, stoats are proving rather harder to tackle. A collapse in the rabbit cycle over the past two years has meant that there is little to eat for the larger predators, and the few of them moving across the farm are usually on the lower ground. By contrast, weasels are everywhere, and I have been catching an average of at least one every ten days since the end of November. They are probably being buoyed by incredible numbers of voles and mice in the blow grass, but they are sure to do some damage to small birds and their eggs as the spring progresses.
The past few days has brought a surge of new catches in my paltry network of six traps (all I can afford). I was delighted beyond all belief to catch a stoat in almost pure ermine this morning in one of my Mk.4 traps above the black grouse lek site. I set the trap six weeks ago, at the foot of a dyke as it ran into a gateway. The theory is that stoats and weasels dislike the prospect of having to cross the gap at a gateway, so they bolt across it at high speed and dash into the first dark hole they see at the opposite side. If there is a trap in this hole, then it’s curtains. When I set the trap, I decided to leave a small hole at the rear of the wooden tunnel on the offchance that a weasel might like to use the tunnel from behind. Within days, I had caught a weasel, and within weeks, I had a fine big white stoat, both caught coming into the trap from behind.
Reports from around and about are quite varied, but it seems that a population of stoats doesn’t change colour all at once; more that some go into full ermine sooner than others, some go into partial ermine, and others don’t change at all. My stoat was pure white, with a faint yellow tinge to the thighs and back legs, and narrow brown spots around the eyes, rather like a panda. Stoats moult back into their summer coats from the head first, so it could be that a few weeks ago, he was pure white but had recently begun his change back to rusty brown. The characteristic black tip to the tail was fuzzed out like a duster, and the little teeth were as sharp as needles. It is so hard to get an idea of what state stoats are in without trapping them. They conduct much of their business at night time, and they are so blindlingly fast that seeing them in daylight is often an extremely brief affair. What is certain is that there are plenty of them around, and they are extremely beautiful.
I think that stoats are the greatest mammals on earth. I rang a taxidermist this afternoon who quoted me £230 to stuff it (which is WAY beyond my budget), and I would like to commemorate my catching it somehow. It could be that the reward I get is an increased numbers of breeding birds this spring – which is the purpose of the whole project anyway.