Part of the mustelid family and very similar to the smaller weasel in appearance. Has a long body and a short tail with a characteristic black tip. The legs are short, and ears and eyes are small. Fur colour can range from ginger to reddish brown, with a clear straight line along their side, separating underside fur which is white or cream. Some animals turn completely white (still retaining their black tail) for the winter.
Found throughout North America, Europe and Asia. In Europe, stoats can be found as far south as Portugal. Most European islands also have stoat populations, except Iceland, and some small North Atlantic Islands.
Wide range of habitats are occupied. These include scrub, marshes, woodlands, hedgerows, urban gardens and arable land.
Carnivore, specialising on small mammals. Rabbits and water voles are taken preferentially when abundant. Small rodents, birds, eggs, fruit and some invertebrates also make up the rest of their diets.
Active both day and night, with territories marked with scent. Males’ territories are larger than females, often including a number of female territories within it. Have a number of old rodent dens and burrows within their territories which they use for shelter, as well as log piles, tree roots etc. Have a distinctive bounding gait due to their back arching as they move.
Found throughout UK and Ireland, including some offshore islands. Legally protected in Ireland but not in the UK.
Only local threats effect this successful species of mustelid. Habitat loss due to development and urbanisation affects the stoat across all its range. Historically, the stoat was hunted within Europe for its white winter fur. Hunting for pelts has declined now, and population numbers seem to be most impacted by prey numbers. Gamekeepers do sometimes control stoats to protect their game birds mainly, although hasn’t been shown to have a significant effect on numbers.
Did you know?
- The white furred winter morph of the stoat is called “ermine”. This colour change only happens to populations in colder climates, and sometimes can be a patchy colour change.
- The ermine stoat skins were highly prized and often used to trim coats and other clothing for royals or other high status individuals.