The past week has been dominated by stoats. Not only did I manage to catch the marauder in my mother’s hen run, but I also spotted a pure ermine yesterday while pacing out the dimensions of a new fence which is due to go up in the next few weeks. For a moment, I mistook the ermine for a piece of white rope blowing in the wind, but then my brain made sense of what I was seeing. I had thought that it was still too early for stoats to have gone into ermine – usually they only really turn up in January and February. It’s been two years since I caught my first ermine on the Chayne, and while I have had some with splodges and streaks of white, none have ever come close to the near perfect jill I caught in 2011. It’s an odd thing that stoats as a species are not in agreement about ermine. I have caught white stoats and brown stoats within half a mile of each other on the same day, so the argument that it’s related to the weather hardly seems to hold water. It could well be genetic, and I wonder if milder winters will gradually weed out the stoats which turn white. I would guess that about a third of the stoats on the Chayne turn white each year, but that also raises the question of whether or not all the ones that go white turn totally white or whether some just get white patches.
In September, I stacked two tonnes of sitka spruce in the windbreak and threw an old lorry tarpaulin over the whole lot to help it dry. When I went back today, it looks as though the tarpaulin has done little more than build up a nice fug of condensation which in turn has encouraged some fantastic blooms of fungus. Loading the first batch of the logs into the trailer, I caught sight of something white twinkling in the brash about thirty yards away. I stopped what I was doing and peered over at it as it came closer and closer. By the time I realised that it was a stoat, Scoop had seen it and had taken off in hot pursuit.
During the few seconds in which it was visible, I saw that it was not only a stoat but also it appeared to be half white. And not only was it half white, but it appeared to be carrying a monstrous rat in its mouth.
The black dog chased the retreating figure as quickly as she could, but the stoat was never even worried enough to drop the rat it was carrying. It vanished down a rabbit hole, then spent the next half hour being noisily sniffed by a dog whose head was considerably larger than the entrance to the hole.
I cheered Scoop on, then went back to shifting the logs. As I got closer to the bottom, I started to find feathers; lots of feathers scattered all through the logs and concentrated in one particular area. They were mainly chaffinch feathers, but there was also evidence of blackbirds, robins and a fieldfare. Digging down further into the log pile, I reached ground level, where a mass of fine dry grass was gathered together in a ball. Small streaks of black shit were strewn across the neighbouring timber, and I found that the nest was lined with a comfortable mattress of rat hair, supplemented with a pillow made of vole skin. As if it wasn’t totally obvious, I sniffed a twist of dry grass and noticed a recogniseable scent of stoat. Completely by accident, I had stumbled upon Fort Stoat, and had been in the act of destroying it when the tenant returned home. If I had known what I was doing, I could have treated the whole log pile with much more caution. I might even have been able to sit out and get some photographs before setting a Mk 4, but as it was, I had blundered right into it. Within a few minutes, I had set a trap and covered it all over again, but there is no way on earth that that stoat will not recognise a clumsy human intrusion. In all probability, he will not be back, but part of me knows just how brazen and curious stoats can be, and it could be that I’ll catch him tonight. If not tonight, then not at all.
As I stacked the logs in September, it never occured to me that I was building a perfect little spot for a stoat’s nest. Infact, I had never even seen a stoat’s nest, let alone intruded upon one by accident. Part of me regrets the intrusion – if he’d only dine out on rats then I would be very happy to go into business with him. As it is, stoats are kryptonite to black grouse broods, and I can’t afford to lose any more birds than I already have. When the time comes to stack the logs next summer, I will go to the woods with a chainsaw in one hand and a Mk. 4 in the other.