Wily woodland hunter
Cunning and agile, the weasel is perfectly equipped to hunt down the prey which is vital for its survival
Deep in the long grass at the bottom of a dry stone wall, a tiny movement betrays the presence of a wily and nimble creature hidden from sight. This is the male weasel, poised to set off on a hunting expedition. Having already sired several litters this year, and with the breeding season over, his main aim now is to find enough food to survive the coming winter. In September, on the cusp of summer and autumn, food is plentiful, and he is hoping to catch a field vole. They, too, have had a successful breeding season, so there are plenty for the picking. Working his way methodically along the wall’s base, the weasel sniffs for any tell-tale traces of a vole. From time to time, he rises up on his hind legs to survey the surrounding area, relying on his acute eyesight, before bobbing back down and vanishing from view once again. If spotted by birds, he may have to call off the hunt, as they will utter alarm calls which warn other animals of his whereabouts. But today he is fortunate: he has not been seen, and a tiny stirring in the grass in front of him, along with a rustling sound, reveals the proximity of a small rodent. The weasel moves forward slowly but surely, then pounces, grabbing his victim by the back of the neck and dispatching it with a single, rapid bite. He may feed immediately, or sometimes, especially at this time of year when food is plentiful, store it away to consume later.
The weasel, or least weasel, to give the species its full name, is the world’s smallest predatory carnivore. Long, sleek and astonishingly fast, a full-grown adult male weighs between 2¾ -7oz (80-200g). Females are even lighter, tipping the scales at between 1¾-4oz (48-110g). The male is also longer than the female, its head and body being between 7½-10in (19-25cm) long, compared to the female’s, which measures 6¾-7½in (17-19cm). The weasel’s small size may at first appear to put it at a disadvantage compared to its much larger relatives, such as the stoat and pine marten, but it helps in exploiting a niche impassable to other predators. When the weasel is pursuing its main prey of small mammals, it is able to pursue the intended victim down its hole. A weasel’s head is broader than the rest of its body, so if it is able to get its head inside a burrow, it knows it can continue without running the risk of becoming stuck. However, its small size and slender shape, with very little body fat, does mean the weasel needs to eat at least once every 24 hours. If not, it runs the risk of losing so much body weight that it is unable to recover, and so starves to death. Typically, a weasel has to eat one third of its body weight each day. Like its cousin the stoat, the weasel is a rich chestnut-brown colour, with a contrasting yellowish-white chest and belly. The head is flattened at the top, with rounded ears, and the eyes are black and beady. The weasel’s tail is shorter relative to its body than that of the stoat, being between 1¼-5in (3-13cm) long. It also has very short legs, so that when it runs, its body moves rapidly across the ground. The name weasel comes from Old Germanic via Anglo-Saxon, and is thought to refer to the animal’s strong, musky scent, often secreted as a defence mechanism or to mark its territory.
Weasels are mainly solitary in their habits, and hunt by day and night, with periods of inactivity between each foray. They are adept at stalking, thanks to their low profile, hugging the ground as they move. Weasels forage very actively and may travel almost a mile in a single hour’s hunting. Their main prey, making up approximately 60-80 per cent of their diet, are small mammals, such as voles and mice. However, weasels are opportunistic predators and also feed on birds, including their chicks and eggs in springtime, and even young rabbits, weighing considerably more than they do. Their ability to hunt underground also enables them to take moles in their subterranean burrows.
“We pieced our thoughts into philosophy, And planned to bring the world under a rule, Who are but weasels fighting in a hole” William Butler Yeats, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’
Long and slender, weasels also have a keen sense of smell.