GAELIC: NEAS BHEAG
Weasels are widely distributed throughout the entirety of mainland Britain and frequently seen in and around the North Sutherland area.
WHEN AND WHERE TO LOOK
Weasels may be seen all year round, in all weather conditions and at any time of day or night (although they are largely known to be nocturnal). This is due to their small size and shape which allows them to dig-out and slip into the burrows of small rodents, which is their
main form of prey. Look for them on any day when walking in virtually any habitat including woodland, heath and moorland and even your garden.
Weasels are mustelids, which means that they are closely related to stoats and otters, with a long body and short legs. They have a light brown body with a white throat and underbelly. They closely resemble stoats but may be easily distinguished by their size, at only 17-22cm in length and no black tip to their tails, which is approximately 5cms. Weasels run with a straight back and a gait, whereas the stoat will tend to bound along with an arched back.
Although they may appear rather cute, weasels are very efficient hunter/killers. They are heavily dependent on small rodents including mice and voles but will also take small birds, bird’s eggs and even a rabbit in times of desperation. Weasels’ bodies are incapable of storing fat and, consequently, they need to consume 40-60 percent of their body-weight each day.
The weasel is the UK’s smallest carnivore and, although they have a very resilient population, only ten percent tend to live much beyond two years. In favourable conditions they breed twice a year, producing litters of between three to six “kits” which become efficient killers at eight weeks and capable of breeding at two to three months old. Their dens are often burrows taken over from their prey and they may have several which are visited regularly in their territories, which are separate for both males and females and are defended vigorously until they extend their ranges in spring to seek mates.
If you are lucky enough to see a weasel it may be “dancing”. They may be bobbing around in a ritual thought to be to intimidate the prey before killing it which they do by biting down on the neck and maintaining the grip until it is dead.
As mentioned, a weasel’s body is unable to retain fat. In cold conditions it keeps warm by lowering its metabolism and retreats to it’s burrow, curling into a ball until it is time to hunt again.
Weasels are of “Least Concern” on the UK Red List and have no legal protection here. As a result, they are often persecuted by game keepers who may trap and kill them even though there is little evidence that, although known to take the occasional gamebird chick, their
impact on game stock is significant. Fortunately, weasel populations are extremely resilient even when trapped, extensively due
to their natural high mortality rate. In years when the rodent numbers are for whatever reason very low, local weasel populations may starve and become extinct in their particular area but soon repopulate once conditions improve.