By Jess Price
The smallest carnivore found in Europe, the weasel has a slim, elongated brown body with a white chin and belly. Half the size of a stoat, it can squeeze into tiny cavities and, according to legend, its head can fit through the centre of a wedding ring! Its slender body-shape makes the weasel well adapted to hunting in the burrows and tunnels of their most common prey - voles and mice. They will often take over the burrow and use it as a den.
They are good climbers and move across the ground in a series of short jumps, stopping frequently to stand upright and check their surroundings. Weasels will also take young rabbits, small birds and eggs when the opportunity arises, which has got them a bad reputation with farmers and gamekeepers, particularly those that rear partridge and pheasant. However, in reality, birds make up a very small proportion of the weasel’s diet.
One disadvantage of their stretched out shape is a high surface-area to volume ratio and only a thin layer of body fat, meaning they lose heat rapidly and therefore have to spend the majority of their life hunting. These busy creatures need to eat at least one third of their body weight every 24 hours and in years with low numbers of mice and voles many will starve. Indeed only 10% survive past two years old.
Weasels can be found in woodland and farmland across the UK, including in hedgerows, long grass and dry-stone walls. They are solitary, but the females can be seen accompanying their young in spring and summer. Females usually give birth to one litter of three to six kittens which are independent at around three months old and are often able to breed themselves in that same year.
So despite many being trapped by gamekeepers, road kill and predation by cats, foxes, owls and kestrels, weasels are still very common and are not under threat. Although they naturally suffer high mortality and local populations often experience extinctions, these lithe animals are resilient and extremely good at re-colonising and repopulating areas when conditions improve.