It was a balmy mid June evening up in the Cheshire moorland hills. I was sitting on the step of a stile, watching meadow pipits and hoping for a short eared owl to show. Suddenly I became aware of a rich brown supple animal “erupting” as it were, from within a nearby dry stone wall, and rippling down its side. There was a soft thud as it dropped to ground, out of sight within a large patch of rushes. A second later, an alert – eyed, long – bodied, sleek – coated stoat emerged into the open, only a couple of feet from my perch. On belatedly seeing me, it froze!! Thus allowing me a wonderfully close, but all too brief scan, from its inquisitive face, along its sinuous body to the black end of its tail! After a second or two it rippled away into more rushes.
My stoat obviously hadn't checked before emerging into the open perhaps it wasn't used to seeing many people in the evening. Stoats use features such as walls as cover when moving around their territories – potentially covering 20 ha (50 acres). They'll also use cavities (that can develop due to slippage/collapse) within drystone walls for shelter and breeding. Perhaps my stoat had been simply resting in a cavity and then decided to go hunting. Or perhaps it was a female (both sexes look alike but males are bigger) with a breeding den within the wall. If so, she'll have mated in early summer last year but not given birth until April or May this year due to delayed implantation. She may've had over 6 young. These generally leave the den at about 5 weeks old but won't become fully independent for another 7 weeks.
Stoats are carnivorous. In the uplands their diet includes small mammals such as hares, field voles and pygmy shrews, and birds and birds eggs. As well as moors, stoats are also found in more lowland habitats, such as farmland, marshes and woodland. In the lowlands a large part of a stoat's diet is made up of rabbits, rats, voles, as well as birds and eggs. Where upland and lowland habitats are used for rearing game birds, like grouse and pheasants, stoats come into conflict with gamekeepers. As a result many are trapped and shot. Despite this they seem to be doing quite well.
In geographical terms as well as being found throughout Britain and Ireland, they occur in the Arctic and temperate parts of Europe (excluding the Mediterranean), Asia and North America.
Although stoats remain widespread in a wide range of habitats they are not readily seen. It was a real treat therefore to get so “up close” to my stoat, and surprise it going about its daily business.