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A White Stoat in the Garden
The very best Christmas present I got this year was a white stoat appearing in my garden. For most of the year and throughout most of the British Isles, stoats are chestnut-coloured with a creamy white belly. But in prolonged snowfall they moult this brown coat and replace it with white fur. Only the black tips of the tail remain. This transformation is as an essential part of a stoat’s camouflage in winter white landscapes. Known as ermine, a stoat’s beautiful white fur is something of a mixed blessing since for centuries it was highly sought after as a trim for ceremonial robes. The fashion was to punctuate the white fur at regular intervals with the black tips of stoat tails.
When George VI was crowned in 1937 around 50,000 stoat pelts were imported for his robe and crown. The Queen also wore the ermine-trim at her own coronation Here in the UK white stoats are usually only seen in Scotland or Wales, where snowfall is protracted. And even in these colder climates not all stoat’s turn white. The colour-change is genetic and is triggered by a ‘switch’ in the stoat’s brain which reacts to cold temperatures and reduced daylight. This switch controls the amount of melanin the stoat produces. As well as providing excellent camouflage, white fur is supposed to conserve heat. In Yorkshire it is extremely rare to see a white stoat.
In the last 10 years, I’ve only seen five. So I was really excited when wildlife cameras hidden in my garden picked up a stoat at the point of turning white jumping over a dry stone wall. At that point only half of the animal’s tail was white. It then went through a patchy ‘pie bald’ stage, but by Christmas it was almost pure white. Unfortunately there hasn’t been much snow since this stoat went through its dramatic colour change. As a consequence it has become almost completely nocturnal; I imagine it is conscious that it now it stands out against the greens and browns of the countryside. This makes it harder to photograph. So far I’ve only been able to see it via the video links to my cameras. Of the few times I have seen a white stoat here, the best sighting was three years ago. I was on my way home one morning when I noticed a flash of white on the road in front of me. It was fast, like a bit of plastic blowing in the wind and I thought that was what it was until I noticed it was ‘blowing’ in the opposite direction to the wind. There wasn’t actually any snow at the time and this stoat stuck out like a sore thumb. But when I watched the weather forecast that night it turned out that there was a cold front coming, so maybe this stoat knew snow was on its way.
Stoat’s can turn white very fast – sometimes it only takes a few days. I didn’t have my camera with me when I saw it so I rushed home, but by the time I got back the stoat had gone. Two days later, my wife Victoria was taking the kids to school and she rang to say she had seen the white stoat close to the same spot I had seen it. I dashed over with my camera, but again the stoat had gone. I decided that I needed to put a little more planning and effort into trying to find it. I got four dead rabbits out of a freezer where I keep road kill to attract wildlife. There were several drainage pipes leading out into the dale from the road which would be invisible to a predators like birds of prey, but big enough for a stoat to run down. I wondered if it had taken refuge in one of them.
I pegged the rabbit carcasses down at the entrance to the pipes and put a camera trap near each one. A day and a half later I had my first image of a white stoat eating a rabbit. I took the other rabbits away and decided to create a feeding station at this spot. Using the camera traps to build up a picture of the stoat’s habits, I discovered that it fed most mornings between 7.30-8.30am and again in the afternoons between 1pm and 4pm. I decided to stake out the site in the mornings, sticking especially to the days when we had snow on the ground. The first morning I arrived at 7.30am in the middle of a snow blizzard. I stood motionless about 20 yards from the entrance to the drainage pipe waiting for the stoat to emerge. I wondered if it would turn up in weather like this, but convinced myself to stay just a few more minutes in case it did. At 8.57am, I decided I would give it three more minutes and then call it a day at 9am. At 8.59am the white stoat appeared 45 yards away. It bound along the Daleside towards me, and, more importantly, the rabbit I had put out for it.
As I trained my camera on it, the stoat got distracted by something and sprang to its left into a clump of grass. It reappeared, leaping over the grass to pounce on something under the snow. It had caught a plump vole. This was good for the stoat, but no good for me as it was now too far away to photograph. The white stoat headed up the dale and across the road in front of me with the vole in its jaws. Then the animal stashed it under a hawthorn bush and went back to the spot it had caught the vole in. It hunted around for a short while, clearly hoping to catch another one, before giving up and heading back across to where it had hidden the vole. I waited another hour but that was the end of my stoat sighting for that day.
But now that I was inspired I was out again early the next morning. This time I had another long wait with no rewards. I was determined to get a good photograph so I went to replace the rabbit at 9.30pm that night. As I shone my torch into the pipe, the white stoat came out to feed. The next morning it was very windy and cold but I waited patiently at the spot and sure enough at 8.30am a white flash caught my eye. It was the stoat. It was by a fence on the other side of the road. The stoat stood up on its back legs and looked directly at me. I stood stock still. I was wearing full camouflage. Surely it couldn’t see me. Then I realised it had smelt me. The grass was bent under by a strong wind that was blowing in its direction. It went back through the fence and dashed along the fence line and crossed the road 50 yards up the hill. I waited for a while longer but I suspected that would be it for the day.
Stoats are incredibly wary and have acute sensors. They are notoriously difficult to watch in the wild and it has taken me years to persuade them to feed regularly in my garden. But the rewards have been incredible and over the last few years I have taken a number of striking photographs of different members of a family of stoats here. Many of these have become studies for paintings.
Now that I have a white stoat here, I plan to spend some time really studying it. I have set up a feeding station surrounded by white light so that I can watch it in full colour around the clock. I hope to get a new collection of photographs of it posing that are good enough to paint from.Author: Robert E Fuller