Normally alert to human approach, the Stoat must have been unaware of me as I skirted the edge of the Rabbit warren that is a bustle of activity at this time of the year. It was not until I was within just a few feet that the Stoat dived for cover, leaving me to settle and wait in case its inquisitive nature afforded me with a second, more prolonged viewing. At this time of the year Rabbits dominate Stoat diet, with male Stoats in particular targeting them, while females tend to take more small mammals, like mice and voles.
Prey preferences reflect the size difference that exists between male and female Stoats; males are the larger of the two sexes and, at about 30cm in length, this one was undoubtedly a male. This makes males better equipped to deal with larger prey, like Rabbits, although both sexes will tackle prey species that are decidedly larger than themselves.
A dominant male Stoat will hold a territory that overlaps with several (smaller) female territories and during the breeding season he may expand the size of this by up to fifty-fold. During this period, which peaks between April and June, he will seek out the females, spending a few days with each, before moving on to find another. Female Stoats use delayed implantation of the fertilized egg, meaning that young are not born until the following Spring.
Sometimes when I am out and about I get the opportunity to watch a Stoat hunting, as it moves through an area and searches burrows and other forms of cover within which potential prey may be found. From time to time, a Stoat will stand on its hind legs, a behaviour known as periscoping, presumably to get a better view of the surroundings. I have also witnessed encounters where a Stoat has taken a Rabbit, sometimes with a quick charge but other times seemingly able to mesmerise its prey. Some individuals may be seen to exhibit a wild, cavorting dance, but whether this is a behaviour used to mesmerise prey or the result of an infection of a nematode worm is unclear. This particularly unpleasant parasite is thought to occur in up to a third of British Stoats, infesting the sinuses and bringing about skull deformity and, presumably, other internal damage.
This Stoat was showing no signs of emerging from the cover into which it had dived and I attempted to imitate the squeaking and squealing of an injured Rabbit. This sometimes brings them out into the open, a trick that an old gamekeeper friend once taught me. Either the Stoat was not playing ball or, more likely, my squealing Rabbit impression was not up to scratch.