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FOR INFORMATION AND DISTRIBUTION MAPS FOR CUMBRIAN SPECIES VISIT: www.lakeland wildlife.co.uk

WEASEL WORDS!

Cumbria is exceptionally fortunate to have the "full monty" of the smaller mustelids, or weasel family, amongst its fauna. The illustrations from the top downwards are:

  • Stoat
  • Weasel
  • Polecat
  • Pine Marten

Details that are relevant to the Cumbrian populations of each species are provided below.


PINE MARTEN
  • Recent Surveys by the Vincent Wildlife Trust show there is strong evidence that the Pine Marten survives in tiny numbers in the central Lakes; otherwise it probably occurs in Britain only in the Central and Western Highlands of Scotland.
  • Historically Pine Martins have been associated with fells and screes in the Lake District, rather than woodland.Sightings and scats (droppings) have suggested that it is present in the Ennerdale, Ambleside, Keswick and Greystoke areas, and possibly north of Alston on the Cumbria-Northumbria border. More recently it has been recorded near Brampton, not far from Talkin Tarn and at the head of Morecambe Bay.
  • This agile creature readily climbs trees (though not necessarily Pines), leaping from branch to branch and taking prey as large as squirrels, although small rodents form the bulk of the diet.
  • The Pine Marten is ill-equipped for survival as a threatened species, as it does not breed until the fourth year and produces only two or three off-spring each year. After mating, delayed implantation of the egg means that young are not born until April of the following year.

POLECAT

  • The Polecat was extinct in Cumbria for over 100 years before being re-introduced from Welsh stock, beginning in the late 1970's. It is currently expanding its range, with most records coming from the length of the Eden valley, around Ravenglass and the Furness peninsula around Ulverston.
  • The species has a preference for low-lying marshy areas around farms; in winter they frequent barns.
  • It is larger and darker than the Stoat with a characteristic "masked" face - a creamy white head with black round the eyes. After a mating in early spring, kittens are born in May or early June.
  • The Polecat is a poor climber and is reputed to store paralysed - but alive - prey (such as frogs) in its burrows. It can effectively keep rabbit populations in check (studies show they form around 85% of prey), but can also be an indiscriminate killer of poultry.

WEASEL

  • The smallest mustelid often surprises people by its slender size, being no more than 25-30 cm long including its short tail. It occurs throughout the county.
  • Two-thirds of its diet comprises mice and voles, but it can be aggressive enough to take young rabbits.
  • Weasels give birth to upto six young about 3 to 4 weeks after mating and can have two litters a year if enough food is available.
  • This bold predator has little fear and does not readily run for cover, so they can be watched in daylight. Because of their small size, weasels often stand on their hind legs for a better view.
  • The sight of a family party of 6 weasels moving nose to tail in a line is not one that I shall easily forget!

STOAT

  • Appearing much larger than a weasel the black-tipped tail of the Stoat is diagnostic.
  • Stoats are widespread in Cumbria, with a bias of records from the north of the county. It is found at altitudes up to 600 metres (2000 feet) where white coated ermines have been reported in winter.
  • Up to a dozen kits are born around April after delayed implantation from the previous year's mating, so there is only one generation per year.
  • A female will mate with an older male when only a few days old, while she is still blind and hairless.
  • Rabbits can form up to two-thirds of a stoats diet.
  • The sight and sound of a kill is also never to be forgotten. The rabbit becomes paralysed with fear just before capture and emits a loud screach.