Imagine a park for mustelids. How much freedom, how many fences, might you allow these relentless killers? Would the weasel be able to live alongside the pine marten? The ferret and stoat could make good bedfellows – on the other hand – well – who can say? They are a villainous crew. We all know that Toad Hall was taken over by weasels, stoats and ferrets. Feral ferrets add another problem for small mammals. As if they haven’t enough problems already! The dainty red squirrel knows to avoid the arboreal pine marten – or become a DAINTY morsel. La famille Lapin are alert on territory they know to be covered by the stoat – or become rabbit pie. As for the small mammals, such as mice and voles, their chances are slim when they come up against the murderous weasel.
It was not by accident that a favourite television series for children in the fifties and early sixties – “Rag, Tag and Bobtail” – was not to include the mustelids as stars. Rag was a hedgehog, Tag was a mouse and Bobtail was a rabbit. As I remember, it was on television every Thursday – and I loved it. No nasty weasels or stoats triumphing there – but neither were there any lessons to educate young viewers about the predatory world beyond the nursery. “Watch with Mother”, of which “Rag, Tag and Bobtail” was a part, celebrated the sweetness of life, giving no clue to as to what was out there in terms of cruelty and ferocity. A good thing or a bad thing? Weasels, stoats, ferrets and, more recently, pine martens, have, none the less, featured in my own life.
Versatility is a key pointer in the success of the mustelids. On local radio, “Highlands and Islands”, we get stories about pine martens raiding dustbins in the colder periods of our winters. This ties in with the ability for the entire group to survive on nuts, berries and insects – sometimes with honey for dessert – when they are unable to obtain their live prey. On a visit to the Highland Wildlife Park, at the weekend, I watched a pine marten in a cage – and wept inwardly for it. The park has a wonderful ethos of preservation and conservation but that individual little climber wanted to be leaping around the coniferous forests through the soft Scottish nights. His creamy throat and chest shone beneath a warm brown wrap. How offended was one member of our group when I dared to suggest that he looked very like a ferret! It didn’t look too much like a ferret of course – that was my mischief. The pine marten is of a similar size to the domestic cat. One theory is that various mustelids were kept in the Bronze Age, instead of cats, in order to keep down the pesky rodents. That would appear to be a redeeming feature. It is true, they will kill for the sake of killing, not necessarily because they are hungry, and store their prey, so they are bloodthirsty – but they are also useful in minimising theft and damage by rodents.
Ferrets have been, at different times in history, popular pets, as they are successful hunters of rabbits and rats. I used to spot them around Thornton Abbey when I was driving between home and work. These were probably escapees as a little girl in my class, who lived up the road from the Abbey, showed me her badly hurt hand one day and explained that one of her ferrets had done this to her. She had clearly forgiven the beast but I still have not – ten years later. Ferrets remain popular with human beings. Not so long ago we attended a “Festival of the Plough” where a display of ferrets using gymnastic equipment was a crowd-puller. Crazy little slinkies. I wanted to remind the onlookers that the ferrets were mutinous in “The Wind in the Willows”. Never trust them.
Ermine trimmed robes worn with pride by judges and nobles would appear to lift the stoat to a higher level. In fact, whereas one may “weasel” one’s way out of a situation or be described as “weaselly” should one show signs of slyness or treachery, no such description links with the label “stoat”. In children’s stories the stoat is rarely as bad as the weasel. In “Kidnap in Willowbank Wood”, by Faith Jaques, Stoat passes on information, enabling Fox to kidnap Jenny Squirrel. Stoat himself is not the kidnapper. “Just as bad,” you may claim. Well, we know that but, as children, we don’t necessarily see things in the same way. Alison Uttley, in “The Brown Mouse Book”, has Mr. Stoat as the kidnapper of Serena Mouse but he himself is a victim of a wrongly delivered mouse-telegram, inviting him to Serena’s party. He simply wanted Serena to sing to him.
It is fascinating to consider why the stoat turns white in the northern winters, whereas it is very rare – but apparently not unheard of – for the weasel to do so. It is possible that the white coat, because it should reduce radiation of energy, will help the stoat to conserve body heat. The weasel does much of its hunting underground so it has less need of a white coat. You and I both know too, that a stoat is difficult to spot in the snowy landscape.
The weasel has been labelled by some as the most vicious killer on the planet. Now, I wouldn’t know about that – when it comes to wasting innocent lives, mankind is definitely in the running – but weasels are certainly efficient killing machines. In spite of this however, years ago, when I picked up my brother from his work at a farm in the uppermost reaches of the Fens, I stopped the car abruptly when he told me that he had caught a weasel and that it was currently abiding in his lunch box. Poor little captive. It was an either/or – either the weasel was to be released immediately or the pair of them would be finding alternative transport.
Although we have all seen the weasel rippling across the road in front of our vehicle and making that final frantic leap into the ditch or verge, life is not so good for him now as it used to be. Many roadsides are frequently cut with a flail which reduces the assortment of plant species growing there. Hunting then is not so good as it once was.
It is hard to believe that the graceful stoat which narrowly missed my wheel may well be on his way to bring down a fully grown hare. In the Highlands, the capercaillie, a hefty, secretive bird, is very difficult to locate but the pine marten will find it and catch it. These mustelids are handsome and appealing but they won’t think twice before nipping even you or me. If you keep chickens you will know that Reynard is not your only reason for fencing them well at night. Watch the size of your mesh – the agile little stinkers will be through in a jiffy and wreak havoc.
I’m glad the weasels, stoats and ferrets took over Toad Hall – they put caution into my young life then.
So, ballet dancer or brute? They have delighted me and made me nervous. Now my daughter wants, one day, to have a reserve for mustelids. Does she know they are BOTH ballet dancer AND brute? How many fingers can she spare?