Understand mammal behaviour – part 8: stoats

Discover all you need to know about stoats. 


Discover all you need to know about stoats. 


As the vegetation dies back in November, it’s a good time to look out for stoats.

The moult into their winter coats is well advanced by now, so in northern areas many will already be white, making them conspicuous in snow-free areas.

Stoats eat 25 per cent of their body weight a day, so they spend a lot of time hunting.

Their long thin shape enables them to pursue prey above and below ground, but your best chance of seeing one is in rough grassland, around rabbit warrens or near wood piles.

Fast and furious

Stoats hunt small mammals opportunistically, moving rapidly and investigating all possible hiding places.

Speed enables them to take prey by surprise (and makes it hard for bigger predators and birds of prey to catch them).

The senses of smell and hearing are most important when hunting in dense cover. 

Once located, their victims are generally caught in a couple of bounds; stoats may wrap their bodies around large mice or small rats to subdue them.


Stoats hunt rabbits stealthily to reduce the risk of injuring themselves. © Federico Gemma

Risky business

Rabbits are hunted, too, but are several times the weight of a stoat and dangerous to tackle.

Stoats approach rabbits cautiously, stopping and standing up on their hind legs to judge distances.

They use cover to get close and judge their final dash carefully to ensure that they maximise the surprise to the rabbit and minimise the chance of injury to themselves.

Cover up

Once they have made a kill, stoats quickly drag larger prey into cover to avoid attracting the attention of other predators.

The remains of the carcass will be cached for future use, either under dense vegetation or loosely buried under a log or rock.

Next month…find out everything you need to know about muntjac deer. 

Find out more about the work of illustrator Federico Gemma. 


Click here to read other understand mammal behaviour articles.