Wildlife: The secret world of a weasel
PUBLISHED: 10:29 05 May 2015 | UPDATED: 10:29 05 May 2015
Weasels are an elusive and endearing member of our native wildlife community
Over the last few months I have been working on a long-term project to photograph weasels. During this time I have had many sightings and have come to love this sleek, nimble and very intelligent little mammal. In the all-too-often protracted hours that I have spent waiting for one to show up, my mind has often wandered in all sorts of directions and I’ve had plenty of time to ponder on how we view this diminutive hunter of mice, rats and voles.
Over thousands of years we’ve incorporated words and meanings into our ever-evolving language and the word weasel has been used quite a few times. We say someone is ‘weaselly’ if they are sneaky and dishonest. ‘Weaselled out of it’ implies getting out of a sticky situation by using slightly naughty or clandestine methods. The phrase ‘weasel words’ is used for lying and falsehoods. In fact I racked my mind to think of something complimentary, but it does seem that we have always viewed the weasel as rather unsavoury. It’s even worse in Greek mythology which has a charming tale about a midwife who inveigled the gods to help her with the birth of Heracles. In retribution Hera turned her into a weasel. In Greece today there are still folklore stories about how unlucky it is to see a weasel around the home. Apparently it is an especially portentous omen if you’re a girl about to get married, as it is sure to bring bad luck. It is said that weasels were created by an unhappy bride and they will destroy a wedding dress if given a chance.
In British mythology witches and banshees were thought to take the form of weasels and it was believed to be unlucky to kill a weasel in case it was a witch! A weasel crossing your path was another unlucky omen. Even in more modern literature they haven’t had a very good press. In Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows the gang of murderous villains that takes over Toad Hall, and who Ratty, Mole and Badger have to fight, just happens to include weasels.
In our far more enlightened world today, we don’t really believe these old stories and hopefully can view all animals as equal and likeable. True, we do all have our favourites, and at the moment weasels are very near the top of my list.
Weasels are small, light chocolate brown mammals with a short tail. Stoats are larger, slightly darker and have a tell-tale black tip on their tail. The weasel that I have been photographing currently is a sharp lively animal and is both intelligent and inquisitive. It does not like to come right out into the open. I suppose because it is quite small (less than 15cm long), it is justifiably concerned about attacks from above by owls, kestrels and buzzards. Near rivers and streams even herons will have a go at catching one. Compared with other major local carnivores such as stoats, badgers, foxes and otters, the weasel is much smaller and retreat will always be the better part of valour.
It has a lovely long sleek body with short, furry legs and feet which enable it to wriggle down mice and rat burrows. When I am in the wood waiting for it to appear, my first sighting is of its small head peeking above ground for a second. It then withdraws and repeats the procedure, staying out a little longer each time until it is confident that all is safe. Then it slowly emerges and explores for a while, investigating any hole it can get down. I have also seen it gather moss to use for bedding.
The weasel’s diet is totally meat laden. It has a prodigious appetite because it has quite a high surface area to volume ratio and a low level of body fat. This means that it needs to eat a lot and often, so its day is split between bouts of hunting interspersed with a few hours of sleep. It is active by day and night so it is possible to spot one at any time.
We never like talking about toilet arrangements in Britain but with many animals spoor or scat can often reveal a lot about its depositor. Weasel scat is small and has a twisted appearance, a bit like rope. On closer investigation it is found to contain a lot of hair.
I have greatly enjoyed the few months I’ve spent watching a small part of a weasel’s world and interestingly it has raised one or two identification issues. I noticed that on all my images the weasel has a brown blob under its chin on either side of its jaw. After spending some time viewing as many other weasel images as I could, I realised that lots of them show this same type of mark although it is often a different size and shape. Occasionally it is missing altogether. If I had simply seen the weasel as a fleeting blur of brown as it whizzed across a path in front of me I probably wouldn’t have noticed this, let alone spent time investigating it.
Luckily we can now see that our ancestor’s view of the natural world was misinformed and often influenced by unfounded human prejudices. The weasel is not sly, sneaky or dishonest, these have always been characteristics more accurately applied to man!