The appearance of the ermine, or stoat, may be transformed at the start of winter, when their coats become snow-white.
Stoat found in the far north of the range are those whose colour changes in winter, helping them to merge into a snowy landscape. Shy by nature, these mustelids rarely stray far from cover, and have a number of dens through their territory. Their ferocity means that they face few predators besides some birds of prey. Female stoat may mate at just a few weeks old, but they will not give birth until the following year.
Although rarely seen, stoats are common in the countryside, where they mainly feed on rodents. The large males will often prey on rabbits, even though rabbits are considerably larger. Stoats are said to mesmerize their prey by dancing around them, before nipping in for the kill. This is not just a rural myth. Stoats have been observed leaping around near rabbits in a seemingly deranged fashion. This curious “dance” seems to have the effect of confusing the rabbits, which just watch the stoat draw slowly closer and closer, until it is too late to escape. The stoats then grasp the prey with their sharp teeth.
Stoats are distinguished from their smaller cousins, weasels, by having black tips to their tails.
In mild climates, stoats have chestnut fur all year round. In colder areas, their coats change to pure white by the time the first snows have fallen. White stoats are known as ermines, and their fur was once prized for its pure colour and soft feel.
Distribution: Widespread in northern and central Europe, extending into Asia and across northern North America.
Habitat: Anywhere with enough cover.
Weight: 0.025 - 0.16 kg (0.05 - 0.35 lb); males are heavier.
Length: 22 - 45 cm (9 - 18 in); up to 30 cm (12 in) tall.
Maturity: Females 2 months; males 2 years.
Gestation Period: 42 - 56 days; embryonic development is delayed after fertilization.
Breeding: Averages 2, ranges from 1 - 4; weaning occurs at 9 weeks.
Food: Carnivorous, preying on mammals, especially rabbits, plus other small creatures.
Lifespan: 3 - 11 years; up to 26 in captivity.
Upperparts are ginger to brownish; underparts vary from white to cream.
Stoat or weasel?
The straight dividing line between the light and dark fur is characteristic of stoat.
Large and powerful, the feet have sharp claws at the end of the toes.
Relatively short, the tail always has a black tip, even in winter.
COLOURATION THROUGH THE SEASONS
In some cases, stoat only partially change colour in the autumn, while females are always a purer shade of white.