For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Monday, 27 August 2007

Stoat Encounter

After writing about Annie Dillard's encounter with a weasel, I thought I might describe my own. Or with 2 stoats in my case. But first some background information - I've been doing research. Family: Mustelidae (meaning the weasel family, from mustela, the Latin for weasel); Order: Carnivora (carnivores, obviously). The stoat is chestnut brown with an off-white belly; in winter its coat becomes thicker furred and changes to pure white all over. (This coat, called ermine, was highly prized at one time for its use in judicial robe-making.) Its body is adapted for speed - long and thin, with short legs and a long, black-tipped tail. The male is much larger than the female. The stoat is highly territorial, and travels alone, except in the mating season or unless it's a mother with her older offspring. Its sense of smell is highly developed, but its vision is not so good - particularly in the daytime. When alarmed it will emit a musky odour from glands near the anus. Stoats are opportunistic carnivores and will eat almost anything - birds, eggs, rodents, rabbits, insects, fish, reptiles - and kill, in the case of vertebrates, with a swift bite to the base of the skull, sometimes after administering other disabling bites to the body of the prey. Their breeding cycle is fascinating. Stoats breed once a year; the female is on heat for only a few weeks in May/June. After mating, her fertilised egg is stored ex utero for 11 months. Actual gestation then takes place over 1 month, after which between 5 and 10 young stoats, known as kittens, are born. A different male will then mate with the mother and also, after 2 or 3 weeks, with the family's young females which, though blind and toothless, will already have reached the pubertal stage. The annual cycle then restarts.

But back to my own meeting with stoats. On the morning of Wednesday 6 June this year I was climbing up to Calf Top (609m), the highest point on Middleton Fell, which forms the high ground between Dentdale, Barbondale and the Lune Valley. The going was quite steep at first so I paused for a rest near Eskholme Pike above Barbon Park on Thorn Moor. No sooner had I stopped than 2 stoats appeared, winding sinuously downhill obliquely above me. They were moving fast down hidden, narrow trackways in the turf and between the rocks. Each was like a mirror image of the other. They ran side by side, close - very close - but never touching. It was the mating season, so they must have been a male and female engaged in some kind of running courtship ritual. So absorbed were they in their intricate weaving dance that they paid no heed to me at all - I doubt if they even saw me (their eyesight is dim anyway in daylight) - as they rushed right past, intent on some unknown goal, until they twisted and turned out of sight. I felt privileged to see this - I've seen stoats and weasels in the wild before, but only as quick streaks of fur - and continued my walk energised, blessed that a window on the often-so-secretive natural world had briefly opened up before me...

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