Mustela Erminea, dog, bitch, kittens, kits

We all love watching these when they come into the rescue - they are one of natures most entertaining mammals.

A stoat is a small carnivorous mammal of the weasel family which has chestnut fur with white under parts and a black-tipped tail.

Stoats are members of the Mustelids, this includes weasels, badgers, otters, polecats, martens, pine martens and skunks. In the wild these cute faced mammals usually live for between 1- 2 years but in captivity can reach 7 years. 

Their head/body length is around 25 cm, with the tail adding another 26 cm or more. They weigh around 140 - 445 grams and the females are often 50% smaller than the male.

Stoats live in woods, farmland, uplands, moorlands, marshes, sand dunes and hedgerows. They prefer tree hollows, rock crevices, under a log or stone wall or a burrow from one of its prey victims. Around the den the stoat holds a territory, the size of which depends on the type of habitat and the abundance of prey with in it.

Almost any type of country habitat may be inhabited by Stoats, although they prefer an area which has good cover. On farmlands they will keep to walls, hedges and fences where possible. In Europe this is normally between 2,000 and 4000 sq.m but in a more barren habitat it may be up to 10,000 sq.m.

Stoats are solitary animals and will only socialise with each other in the breeding season, being very promiscuous. Mating occurs in the middle of August. 

In spite of being such a small animal, the stoat's gestation is among the longest reported for mammals (11 months). This is because of the adaptation of delayed implantation or embryonic diapause in which a fertilised egg is not implanted in the uterus until months later. The animal's "real" gestation is much shorter.

Six or more kittens are born in a hidden nest, often an old rabbit burrow lined with fur. At birth, the kittens are blind and have a covering of fine white hair with a much thicker fur at the back of the neck so that the mother can carry them safely in her mouth. Their eyes do not open until they are at least a month old. They are weaned at about 5 weeks and at 6 weeks the black tip appears on their tail. After the young have left the den, the family stays together for some time hunting and playing together.

The mother will defend her family fiercely. This is a wonderful time to get a glimpse of these playful creatures as they tumble and play in meadows.

Stoats are a true carnivore, although it will also eat birds eggs. The Stoat mainly feeds on small mammals such as hares, rabbits, mice, voles and shrews - whatever is available in its territory. They will also eat birds and when prey is scarce they will even eat earthworms, large insects and carrion (dead animals).

The Stoat is active by day or night. They are alert and inquisitive and are one of the fiercest of predators. They move really fast - up to 20 miles an hour and will bound over the ground. The Stoat’s eyesight is a resolution below that of humans but their night vision is better.

A Stoat will track its prey by scent; with the ability to locate a victim from a great distance. It will follow a trail relentlessly and once in pursuit, the victim has little chance of escaping. It kills by pouncing on the prey and biting deeply into the back of the neck near the base of the skull.

A Stoat will perform strange antics as part of its hunting strategy; it will approach a group of birds or rabbits and then jump around pretending to ignore the animals who are attracted to this odd performance and edge nearer to get a better look, the Stoat will then suddenly pounce on the nearest member of its audience.

During the winter, a Stoats coat will turn pure white except for the tip of the tail which remains black.

When alarmed, a stoat can release a powerful musky smell from glands near its anus.

Predators include humans, foxes, snakes and wild cats.

The Stoats beautiful white coat in winter (ermine) has always been used by man to trim robes that have been worn by royalty. 50,000 ermine pelts were sent from Canada to England for King George VI’s coronation in 1938.

They were once trapped in large numbers in the Arctic, Russia and North America, but in recent time, the price of labour to process such tiny pelts has not made hunting them worthwhile.

In Britain, Stoats have been ruthlessly trapped by gamekeepers who accuse them of stealing game birds, despite the fact that their main prey is rabbits and mice. Today, this persecution has been much reduced and Stoats have started to recover in numbers. 

When rabbits were affected by the disease myxomatosis in the 1950’s, almost all of them were wiped out and in the areas where Stoats depended heavily on rabbits, their numbers rapidly declined. 

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