Video: Karen Toller | Words: Steve Kirk
To see a weasel in the wild you generally need two things; very little plant cover and a lot of luck. The reason for the first is that these small, low slung mammals simply disappear in any vegetation, and are hard to see in all grass but the shortest of lawns. They might become briefly visible in a mad dash across a country road, but if you encounter one in a wood then the bare forest floor affords good views. You need luck because weasels, being predators, are always much less abundant than their prey – in this case mice and voles in particular. Weasel success is also tied to food availability. There have been several sightings of weasels running free at Wildwood recently. Wild small rodent populations are very high at the moment, having had a mild winter with a good store of nuts, acorns and other tree seeds (collectively known as mast). The ground is bare, aside from leaf-litter, so any weasel is weasily seen.
This is good news as Wildwood currently has no captive examples. Smeagol or last hand-reared exhibit died last year, aged about 5 years old. Her predecessor, Teasel, lived until she was 8 years old and had eight litters of babies mainly at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey.
Both weasels started life in a similar fashion, many years apart. Each was born in mouse’s nest that their mother had taken over. Eventually they outgrew the space, so they and their respective siblings were moved by their parent. During the process the same thing happened; the mother weasel lost her grip and dropped one of her offspring. What happened next may seem bizarre and inexplicable but is well documented, if not well understood. Instead of picking up her baby the mother weasel left it there and returned to the nest to collect another. Scruffing that one, much as a cat scruffs a kitten, she carried it to the new den, jumping over the kit (as young weasels are known) that she had abandoned earlier.
There is, of course, a happy ending. Each was found and brought to me. My success with the first led to me rearing the second, also. I have had the privilege of sharing my home with a weasel on two occasions, something not normally feasible with one of nature’s fiercest hunters, but in both cases I was the first thing they saw when they opened their eyes at about three weeks old – so they took me to be their mother – and let’s face it, you don’t bite your mum! In a world where nature is perfect, I try not to have favourites, but weasels have a special place in my heart.
And what is it like living with a weasel?…Well, that’s another story.