A weasel is ‘weasley identified’ and a stoat’s ‘stoately different’

Nature Notes - With South Holderness Countryside Society


POP GOES THE WEASEL: Weasels and stoats: Photo courtesy of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
I REMEMBER this saying from many years ago, it was part of the answer to the question ‘What’s the difference between a weasel and a stoat?’ The answer being, ‘A weasel is weasley identified, and a stoat is stoately different.’ Not very helpful, really, when you are young and trying to learn as much as you can about British wildlife! My dad, as a joker, would like to use this statement.

It’s not as if they are very common and you get the chance to notice the differences from regular sightings. In fact, these snifter sized predators are rather hard to spot, and with them looking so similar just a streak of gingery fur makes it difficult to identify and tell them apart.

Weasels and stoats are two of the seven UK members of the Mustelidae family. They can both be found across mainland Britain preferring wooded areas, but if there is sufficient cover for them and a plentiful supply of food, especially rabbits and other rodents, they can be found in many other habitats. They are the two smallest of this carnivorous family and they have many similarities. They both have reddish brown hair with much paler, creamy coloured hair on their neck, chest and underneath. These white markings can be used to distinguish between different members of a family. They both have an amazing sense of smell but rather poor eyesight, hunting by sniffing out their prey. They prefer to live alone, unless it’s the breeding season, and hunt alone unless they have young family, or ‘kittens’, and then they will hunt in a group to teach the youngsters. As soon as they can hunt successfully they will leave the family group to find their own territory. They have well developed scent glands, producing a pungent smell used to mark territory, a long thin body, small rounded ears, short legs, and five toes on eat foot with sharp claws. If perspective is a problem, and only the front of the animal can be seen, you can be forgiven for not knowing which mustelid member you are trying to identify.

Size is the first obvious difference. The weasel (Mustela nivalis) is much smaller in size, possibly as little as 50g and 15 to 25cm in length. The stoat (Mustela ermine) is easily three times heavier and can be 30 to 40cm in length. There are slight colour differences, with the weasel being more reddish brown and the stoat sandy brown and the white markings are more splotchy on the weasel and straight on the stoat. However, the big giveaway is the tail. A weasel’s tail is quite short and stubby in comparison to body length and is the same colour as the body all the way to the tip. The stoat’s tail is around half its body length and is black and slightly bushy at the tip.

Their movement is suited to their hunting style. An agile weasel will mainly hunt in tunnels looking for small rodents such as voles, whereas the larger stoat will easily tackle a much larger adult rabbit after tracking it down along hedgerows and ditches, and is the time you may actually spot one in the open. Above ground a weasel will move with a quick yet flattened style, but the stoat has a characteristic arched back and bounding movement. They both prefer to be under cover to avoid being spotted by larger predators, such as foxes and birds of prey, and becoming lunch themselves!
In very cold climates, the stoat can change its coat colour to pure white, apart from the tip of its tail which remains black. This colour change is quite rare with the mild winters we have had, so is more likely to be seen in the far north, and is triggered by both the shorter days and the cooler temperatures. This colour change can happen over as short as a few days and is protective camouflage against the snow, and also against human hunters, as when the change happens the stoat is given a new name: Ermine. For centuries this white winter coat, with black tail tip, has been considered a valuable commodity for the fur industry and was traditionally used to edge royal robes.

While the stoat has its own problems historically, in avoiding human hunters, the weasel has developed a niche of its own in folklore and superstition. Their name has become associated with someone who can be evil or sneaky, and they are associated with witches, misfortune and even death. In Ireland a banshee is thought to be able to take the form of a weasel, and weasel spit is said to be both poisonous, and used vengefully against humans. They are considered incredibly unlucky to see first thing in a morning and even more unlucky should you kill one; if a weasel were to be killed a spiteful witch would then take revenge on that person. To hear one squeak is thought to be an omen of death.

On a lighter note, my lasting memory of the weasel is the old English nursery rhyme ‘Pop goes the Weasel’. One of my children had a Jack-in-thebox with the tune and it was the turn of the handle on ‘pop’ that sprung the figure out of the box. The first recorded version of this song goes back to around 1850, but the origins are believed to go back to the 18th century and referred to a dance which was popular with Queen Victoria. There are different variations of the song depending on where in the country you live, and it also became popular in America but with their own variation of the verse until the punchline, which remained the same. The English traditional song is:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

It is widely believed, but not known for certain, that the Eagle refers to the name of a tavern, and that ‘pop’ refers to the use of pawn shops when all the wages had been drunk away, with ‘weasel’ possibly a derivation of ‘whistle’ as in ‘whistle and flute – suit’. Like a lot of nursery rhymes, the meaning behind the words is not quite as sweet or innocent as they may sound. They are pawning their clothes to buy food after wages have been spent at the local pub.

So back to the original question posed. The original identification statement is really not helpful at all. Let’s try a different one. How about ‘Wee weasel’ and ‘Stout’ stoat. I like a little bit of alliteration!