The life of a Stoat

Countryside 2011 takes place from the 28th May to the 12th June. To celebrate we take a look at some of the species on display at the Booth Museum.

The stoat has had an unfortunate relationship with man over the centuries. Along with being a highly prized fur species, gamekeepers and farmers have persecuted stoats in Britain for hundreds of years because they eat game bird eggs, chicks and even the sitting hen. However, in their natural ranges stoats are far more likely to eat rabbits, and act as a strong natural control on their numbers. This relationship is so clearly marked, that the rabbit myxomatosis outbreak in the 1950s decimated stoat numbers due to an overwhelming loss of prey.

[slideshow]

The stoat’s predilection for rabbits was used as justification for introducing them into New Zealand in order to control the rabbit population (which had also been introduced). However, the flightless indigenous birds proved to be easier prey for the stoats, and they have in turn become pests, helping to push many bird species to the brink of extinction. Efforts are now underway to completely eradicate stoats from many of the islands of New Zealand.

Stoats are often mistaken for weasels, but there are several differences. Appearance wise, weasels do not have a black tipped tail, and do not have a white winter coat. Stoats can live significantly longer than weasels, some living for up to ten years. Stoats also have one of the longest gestation periods in mammals, demonstrating delayed implantation, where the fertilized eggs are held in suspension for up to ten months before beginning to develop.

There are several examples of stoats in the Booth Museum collection, but one of the best examples is a case of two stoats in their winter ermine coat. This case was created by the award winning taxidermist William Farren. Farren operated in the late 19th and early 20th century, and his shop was located at 23 Regent Street, Cambridge. Farren often accompanied the Hon. E S Montague, Secretary of State for India, on expeditions, and many of his works are cared for by Leicester museums’ service. The case of stoats is typical of Farren’s creations as they usually depict the animals in their natural surroundings, with an absence of prey species. This particular example is part of the education collection, and is often used in the Booth Museum for learning.

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

Leave a Reply