Country & Garden: Nature Notes

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STOATS ARE among the few creatures in Britain that change colour in winter. In summer they are chestnut brown above, and yellow-white on the throat and the belly, but in hilly areas, especially in the North and Scotland, they moult in the late autumn and turn white, except for the tips of their tails, which remain black.

The change is triggered mainly by the seasonal drop in temperature. In its winter pelt, the animal is known as an ermine, and used to be valuable for its fur, which was worn by judges and magistrates on their robes.

The stoat's Latin name, Mustela erminea comes from Mus (mouse) and Telum (spear), so that it means "spear-like mouse" - which is an accurate description of the predator's lethal efficiency.

It moves like quicksilver, can climb effectively, and hunts by scent, above or below ground, so that prey, once identified, has little chance of escape.

A male weighing less than one pound can kill a full-grown rabbit more than twice its weight by means of a precision bite in the nape of the neck.

After a long pursuit, a rabbit often seems to become mesmerised by its pursuer, and will sit there helplessly, giving off piteous squeals as the final bite goes in.

Gamekeepers catch hundreds of stoats in traps set in tunnels, but the animals remain common all over northern and central Europe.