Stoats have short legs and a long, narrow body with a coat of sandy-brown fur and a yellowish-white underside. They have a bushy black-tipped tail, which easily distinguishes them from the smaller weasel. In Scotland, Wales and the west of Britain, the stoat’s fur turns snow-white in winter and only the tip of the tail remains black. This white fur is known as ermine, hence their Latin name Erminea. This fur was once used to make the ceremonial robes of kings and queens.
Stoats are active mainly at night and are well adapted for following small mammals into their burrows. They bound along at high speed and stop every so often to sit up and sniff the air. Stoats are very playful creatures with an insatiable curiosity. They tirelessly explore holes, buildings and even people if they sense that there is no danger.
Breeding They mate during the summer and the following spring the females have one large litter of 9-13 kits, depending on how much food is available. Male stoats come into the nest when the kits are still young and mate with all the young females so that they are pregnant before they even leave the nest. Young stoats develop rapidly and are able to hunt for themselves at about 11 weeks old.
Diet Mostly mice, shrews, voles, rabbits, rats, birds and small fish, birds’ eggs, berries and insects.
Habitat They are not fussy and will live in most places where there is enough cover and food including woodland, cultivated land, hilly areas and grassland, although they are often not far from human habitation. Stoats are widely distributed throughout Britain and Ireland, but are less common than in the past due to widespread control by gamekeepers, farmers etc.
Predators & threats Occasionally foxes, owls, kestrels and cats.
Status & distribution Stoats are common and widely distributed throughout Britain and Ireland, but are less common than in the past due to widespread control by gamekeepers and farmers.
Did you know? Stoats kill their prey with a swift bite to the back of the neck and have a fearsome reputation as bold, efficient predators. They sometimes make their den in the burrows of prey that they have just killed and then make a nest out of their prey’s fur!