David Beeson, March 2022
This article will look at the pine marten, polecat, stoat and weasel. The former pair are very unequally dispersed, while the latter two are mostly found across the British mainland.
I have only seen one live, wild marten, and that was in France as it hurtled across a road. Many are killed, and so visible, on Crete’s roads as it is their top carnivore and numbers are healthy, but they are beech martens, not the UK species. If you want to see one in the UK, one of the viewing spots in the Highlands is the most reliable location – but it failed for us. Martens do occur in The New Forest, Forest of Dean and Mid-Wales into West Shropshire, however in low numbers. They also occur in Ireland.
However, as martens sit near the top of the food pyramid their numbers will always be low, and their density suggesting seeing one in the wild a poor bet! Better to try a UK wildlife park, although a keen spotter can locate their twisted droppings.
Denning often appears to be in tree cavities, although artificial nest boxes and cottage roofs are popuar.
Polecats have spread out from their C20 relic population in West Wales, around the Hafod Estate inland from Aberystwyth. They now occur across the whole of Wales, English Midlands and Hampshire. Other populations do occur. A friend caught one alive in a rabbit trap and road kills are not uncommon around Andover. I had a pet polecat-ferret for many years until he eventually escaped, as have others of his type.
The polecat was also called the foul-mart as, unlike the sweet-mart (martens) they often exhibit a strong territorial marking scent. (Our cute animal was only allowed into the house during his two-month non-aromatic phase!)
A polecat’s droppings are similar to a marten’s with fur visible and the scats thin and usually twisted. They are often left in a prominent location to serve also as markers. Size: about three centimetres long and, when fresh, about 2/3 cm wide.
Our polecat, called Poo (Short for the specific name of [Mustela] putorius), could swim well and loved being taken for walks on a cat lead / harness. However, once Poo understood the route had turned back towards home he would walk no further and needed carrying.
Poo escaped three times, the last time not returning. On the first occasion he was caught by a gamekeeper and dumped into a cage. When I reclaimed him the keeper asked, “’Ow do I noes he’s yors?” In response I took him out of the cage and put his head to my face – he licked my nose rather than take a chunk out. “He’s yors!” he said.
Poo was unafraid of anything living. Dogs soon kept well away, and a cow ended up with a sore nose when it paid him too much attention.
When running free on our local water meadows, Poo would scare rabbits out of hollow willow trees, on one occasion a rabbit jumping out above head height over me. Also, he caught a grass snake as it was swallowing a toad … both survived the event, although as I released the snake it vented a foul-smelling liquid on me that lingered for days and then played dead.
Poo was a exhibit I took round with me when giving talks or lectures about otters. Otters at that time were unprotected by law, still hunted with dogs and near extinct. Our polecat helped in gaining legal protection for Lutra lutra.
The next smallest carnivore is the stoat, and this is found throughout the UK including Northern Ireland. They frequent Harewood Forest adjacent to my home, wander our garden and one killed our pet rabbit. The animal is mostly active during daylight, in contrast to the first two.
The strength of a stoat is amazing. I have watched a female climb over a metre-high wire fence with a dead rabbit many times its own weight. The same animal had found a den of young rabbits and she took them one at a time back to her own young hidden away in a rabbit burrow, each time climbing the fence.
I have seen stoats in ermine (white winter coat) in the USA. They do not change colour in Southern UK.
Finally, we have the diminutive weasel. With only a fleeting view distinguishing stoats and weasels is near impossible, especially as there are baby stoats of about the same size. Weasels are often a lighter colour and lack a black tip to the much shorter tail.
Weasels are not found in Ireland but widely distributed elsewhere. I have seen only a handful of wild sightings, often with just the head looking out from a mole or vole hole or dashing across a road.
[Yes, I have ignored the wild cats of the Scottish Highlands as encountering one in the wild, for most of us, is a distant dream. However, the wildlife park on the edge of The New Forest had several pairs. Wild American mink are also found here, yet I have not encountered one for over 40 years.]
The feeding niches for these four species overlap, but in essence UK martens are more likely to feed on squirrels, but spend much time at ground level. The polecats especially feed on rats and rabbits, often feed at night. Stoats prey on rabbits and climb trees for young birds, while the weasels hunt in rank grass and along hedges and walls for voles. In our garden weasels frequent mole tunnels.
But, yes, that food separation is a big simplification. Carnivores will attempt to take anything they can overpower, with weasels known to even kill adult rabbits many times their own weight.
Life expectancy is highest with martens (17 years) and least with weasels who seldom live to two years of age. With persecution, life expectancy is often related to game bird breeding and the use of rodent-killing chemicals (Warfarin). I once spent a day out with a ‘tame’ gamekeeper, he shot at anything that moved unless it was a game bird.
Both weasel and stoats can charm. This sometimes occurs in our garden, with the stoat rushing about, flipping somersaults and behaving very oddly. The watching squirrel was fascinated, came close but vanished when the stoat rushed behind the tree, climbed and then descended in a failed attempt to make a kill. I have also witness stoats effortlessly climbing our trees and then investigating nest boxes for food.
With the demise of the local rabbit population to a viral disease I have seen less stoat sightings.