Wily wood­land hunter

Cun­ning and ag­ile, the weasel is per­fectly equipped to hunt down the prey which is vi­tal for its sur­vival

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

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.

Tiny preda­tor

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.

Soli­tary hunter

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.

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