There are some species of wildlife that totally fascinate me and whenever I do see them I generally get a feeling of elation about the wonders of the natural world. All very flowery I know but the fact of the matter is that it’s just true! Some species are not that easy to observe due to their habits and sometimes there habitats as well. A couple of weeks ago I was reminded of this situation when, by chance, I turned my head in the right direction to observe a Weasel run across the footpath a few yards in front of me. I stood there for a few moments and made a squeaking noise and a moment later there for a few seconds, was the head of a Weasel checking me out. It seemed to realise that I wasn’t something she could eat and was gone. This was quite a typical sighting in my experience and when I say she, I wasn’t trying to over romanticise or personify the individual as it was only about 6 or 7 inches long and I know male Weasels are a little larger so I presumed my sighting to be a female.
As with many species today, Weasels are a species that has a large worldwide range and within this range there are differences in body size, colour and habitats. A few people in the scientific community are claiming that there are actually up to four different species across the world. I’m no expert in animal genetics but there does seem to be some good evidence for these claims that may lead to a new species being created in the future. We shall see what happens in the future on this subject.
No matter what genetic decisions are made, the Weasel remains the smallest predatory mammal across much of its range and when you find out about the diet of Weasels it is amazing to see that the size of some prey items is much bigger and heavier than the relentless hunter. Weasels generally eat small mammal such as voles and mice and are small enough to pursue them in their runs and burrows. I once observed a Weasel enter a log pile and emerge 30 seconds later with a lifeless Wood Mouse in its mouth. The usual killing method is a bite to the neck or throat and a friend of mine and I once observed a Weasel run across a bank by a woodland path into a small patch of brambles where a high-pitched scream was emitted from the bramble patch where upon investigation we found a half-grown rabbit with what can only be described as a hole on top of its head. It looked brutal and certainly was for the rabbit. A couple of years ago a photo emerged of a Weasel on the back of a Green Woodpecker that was in flight. Weasels don’t like to give up easily when they are hunting often putting themselves in danger in the process.
Weasels are the smallest members of the Mustelid family which includes Badgers, Otters, Pine Martin, Pole cats and the similarly coloured Stoat. Stoats are differentiated by their larger size and longer tail with a distinctive black tail tip. In colouration terms Weasels are a reddish/ brown on the upper half of their body with a whiteish colouration on the underparts. Their bodies are long and quite sleek in appearance as is typical of a number of species in this family of animals This body is supported by 4 short legs with the back pair being quite muscular. Their bodies are designed to hunt and although small mammal form the basis of their diet they will climb trees and raid birds’ nests of eggs and young. I used to work at a Fields study centre where we had 30 or so nest boxes in a part of the woods and monitored their numbers each year and I recall one year 4 nest boxes in a row had been predated by Weasels and we knew that they were the only predators small enough to get into the nest boxed without damaging the entrance holes. The insides of the nest boxes were trashed and there was occasional piece of egg shell left l. All youngsters were moved from the boxes and I’m guessing that the Weasel would have had to climb the tree serval times in order to retrieve all , 13 in one nest box, youngsters within. As you will becoming aware by now Weasels are very driven little predators. Their family life shows that as well.
My use of the term ‘ family life ‘ is not really a suitable phrase to use for Weasels as with many predatory mammals, much of their lives are spent in solitude. Male Weasels hold a territorial of a varying size but can be over a hectare. Territory size will be defined by prey availability which is also a key factor in breeding success of females. Within in the boundaries of a male’s territory there will be the territories of a female or possibly two. Both sexes will defend their territories all year round and even when the females are ready to mate there will be a fight between the male and female until the larger male overpowers the female. After mating the males has nothing to do with raising the youngsters. A few years ago, one May day, I witnessed two weasels fighting and was so close to them for a minute that I could see it was a pair and I was witnessing the violet courtship before mating. The breeding season is normally between April and June and normally consists of four to six kits.
The female will raise the kits in a burrow that has been built by other small mammals, possibly something she has eaten. She will move the youngsters to another site if she feels they are threatened. We have to remember that although Weasels are fierce predators themselves, they are very small and can get eaten by larger predatory mammals and birds. Young are born naked and blind and only open their eyes after 2 weeks. The
young are normally hunting for themselves after about 4 – 5 weeks or so. Family groups can be seen together when the young are strong and big enough to accompany their mother. These family group will break up fairly soon and the mother will push the youngsters out to find their own territories.
Weasels can be seen in a variety of different habits that offer enough food and cover to ensure survival and over my years of observations I have seen Weasels in agricultural land, farmyards, woodlands, meadows and grasslands, flood marshes, chalk downland, hedgerows and stone walls. This eclectic range of habitats means the Weasel is widespread in the UK and is only absent from some the offshore islands and Ireland.
These charismatic and energetic predators are one of the many joys of our native wildlife, so if you get lucky and manage to see one you may well see some of the things I have discussed here and understand the character of this tenacious little predator. I hope you get lucky and manage to see one.