If there’s one natural history question that has stood the test of time, it must be this: how do you tell the difference between a Stoat and a Weasel?
There’s an old saying that one is weasily identified, while the other is stoatally different.
It’s not the most helpful of old sayings but it does reinforce the head-scratching nature of this particular puzzle. Both species are small, brown and ferrety; they are both fairly common and widespread throughout Sussex, and they both tend to be seen in the longer grass along field edges and ditches, or darting across the footpath a few steps ahead. Stoats bound along with an arched back, whereas Weasels scurry - but both often resemble a brown blur. They do differ in size and this determines their choice of prey, with ‘wee weasels’ focusing mainly on mice, voles and small birds, while ‘sizeable stoats’ regularly hunt rabbits. The best way to tell them apart is their tail, if you manage to catch a glimpse of it. A Stoat’s will always have a black tip (pictured below), while a Weasel’s tail is shorter and never blackened.
Stoat © Derek Middleton
Most people are surprised by just how small Weasels are. They’re built on the same diminutive scale as their small mammal prey, and they’re officially Britain’s smallest carnivore. Legend has it that a Weasel can slip its head through a wedding ring, so they are easily capable of nipping into a mouse-sized burrow in pursuit of a hot meal. What they lack in size, they more than make up for in attitude. Weasels are fierce and formidable predators. Their long, slinky bodies are well-adapted to winding through the twists and turns of the most labyrinthine tunnels. Day or night, there’s nowhere to hide and running isn’t much use either. Weasels are fast and agile above or below ground, and when they set their sights on a target its fate is sealed. They will even tackle a full-grown rabbit occasionally, despite it being 25 times bigger than they are, and not long ago a Weasel famously took flight on the back of a Green Woodpecker. That was one weasily identified, yet stoatally different individual.