January is the heart of winter and many of our small mammals are hibernating – but not all. One in particular is well adapted to this time of year as their coats turn white in order to hunt in the snow (although, as I write this, we have seen no snow yet this year). Which mammal is this? It’s the stoat.
Stoats are long, slender animals like their relatives, weasels and ferrets. And they make excellent hunters. A stoat will prowl through hedgerows looking for small mammals, birds’ eggs or even worms! But they are most successful at hunting rabbits.
Their long, thin bodies make stoats well adapted to tunnels. They use this to their advantage and enter into rabbit warrens to catch their prey. They might even take up residence in a warm and fur-lined, ready-dug nest!
Like many predators, stoats are solitary animals. Each has its own territory which it marks with a scent to warn others of the same species. Any stoat intruding will be seen off, or fought for the right to remain. Males and females come together only once a year in the summer to mate.
Female stoats give birth to between 6 and 12 babies in the spring – their pregnancy is ‘delayed’ for 9 months before the embryos develop over 4 weeks. This means that the offspring will appear when food is in abundance, rather than in the run up to autumn, when prey will be scarce.
Stoats have few natural predators – save for man. Gamekeepers have always been their enemies and, for a long time, used traps to catch them. But stoats were also caught for another purpose – we wanted their fur.
As I said earlier, in the winter a stoat’s fur turns white. When this happens we call them ermine rather than stoats. Now, unfortunately for the stoat, ermine is seen as a symbol of nobility and royalty. The ceremonial robes worn by our kings, queens and members of the House of Lords have long been trimmed with ermine. Luckily for the stoat (but not for the rabbit!) many use rabbit or fake fur today due to the concerns of animal rights activists.
Despite the hard time they are having with climate change and hunting, stoats are remarkably successful. They can be found all over the UK and Ireland. If you’d like to know more about them then have a look at Animal Corner (but beware – the site is full of adverts).
Would you wear ermine, or any other fur for that matter? And what about leather? Let us know what you think in the comments box below. Here at Education Quizzes, we’d love to hear your opinions.