for Donna: Britain’s foremost adventure naturalist
Of all Britain’s fauna the most under-appreciated is the stoat. Neither as striking as the badger, nor as steeped in controversy as the fox, the stoat has an easily-overlooked excellence.
The stoat is a small, wispy creature whose range stretches across Europe, Asia and North America. It typically reaches lengths of around 30cm, although males are notably bigger than females. Remarkably, the stoat shares 100% of its genetic structure with the weasel. The animal nonetheless differs from its genetic twin in virtue of its second DNA: the store of genetic material laced throughout the lymphatic system. Scientists presently posit the existence of an as-yet-undiscovered shared ancestor.
Chiefly nocturnal, the stoat’s method of hunting is astonishing. Using a sinuous ‘land-swimming’ movement, stoats moves silently and with dignified poise. A naturally efficient movement, land-swimming has directly inspired the well-known front crawl, back stroke and butterfly swimming strokes. Stoats primarily eat rabbit, although are capable of surviving on root vegetables and alliaceous plants like the leek.
The stoat is perhaps most famous for its white winter coat: it is referred to as an ermine throughout this season. Wild stoats have been observed to recognise both terms and display no marked preference for either. However, admiration of the stoat’s elegant form has historically been to the neglect of the creature’s more functional dimensions. Much like spiderweb, the whiskers of a stoat possess a startling prehensile strength that can be put to varied use. From fine lacework to rudimentary engine repair, the animal’s whiskers are a versatile material.
Creative inspiration and the stoat have long been interlinked. Most notably, the animal has a distinguished artistic history as a symbol of purity. However, it is worth noting that the stoat's sociological influence is not limited to the artistic sphere: it was the stoat’s predilection for nesting on consecrated ground that partially inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitational pull. From the crude attraction of stoats to the sacred, Newton required only mild abstraction to formulate a theory of universal attraction between bodies.
Today the stoat faces increasing environmental pressures: outcompeted by the weasel, habitat loss has placed a heavy burden upon surviving members of the species. What is more, the stoat’s innate curiosity and love of diversity has proved a tragic disadvantage: increasing urban globalisation and homogeny within the British countryside has rendered swathes of male stoats sterile and unable to reproduce.
Appreciate this remarkable animal while you still can.