Stoat packs

© Merrily Harpur 2005

On a mild, sunny day in March a man was walking down a Yorkshire lane. Partridges were calling in the stubble, there was a blue haze in the air, and all was quiet in that part of the wolds.

'Suddenly, as he walked, a pack of small animals charged down the bank into the lane and all about him. They leaped at him red-eyed, snapping little white fangs, leaping, dancing, darting, as agile as snakes on four legs. Indeed they looked like furred snakes, with their short legs, their long, undulating bodies, their little pointed heads, their flattened ears, rat-like tails and little murderous eyes.

'The man laid about him with his stick. He knocked six or eight flying into the ditches on either side. He kicked off two or three that had fastened their fangs into his trouser leg. And those that he had knocked flying with blows that would have stunned a dog came out of the ditches and at him again. So, after a minute or two of this cut-and-thrust business, he took a good sharp run down the lane…'

The man in question was Sir Alfred Pease, 'a brave man who knows more about animals than most' and it was thus that J. Wentworth Day described, in the 1930s, his encounter with a stoat pack.

Rarely encountered in the flesh, but common in country tales, stoat packs have long hunted the borderland between folklore and natural history. Thirty years after Sir Alfred's alarming experience a similar incident was reported:
'In the May of 1963 a doctor enjoying a day's fishing on his beat of the Findhorn met a stoat on the river path. He was surprised to find that it did not seem inclined to run away. On the contrary it had stopped in the middle of the path and seemed disposed to dispute his right of way. Close to the path there was the bole of an uprooted pine tree full of holes. "From practically every hole," said the doctor, "there was a stoat's head peering out at me - possibly fifteen or twenty in all." He struck at them with his gaff and they set up 'a great chattering and squawking' but he failed to hit any of them and succeeded only in bending his gaff. "As they appeared to be working themselves up to the point of attack," he admitted, "I decided to retire in haste." '

The doctor's disconcerting realisation that every crevice was filling with a stoat's face was echoed by the experience of the writer and naturalist H. Mortimer Batten: 'I went into a ruined house called Coltgarth, not far from Burnsall village, and on entering became aware of a hissing and chattering in the wall all round me, and on looking up saw the heads of stoats protruding from numerous crannies above, all very resentful of my presence. It would not be pleasant to be mobbed by such a gathering…'

The stoat (Mustela erminea) is the most enigmatic of the mustelidae - the family that includes weasels, ferrets, martens and otters. We are familiar with the paralysis he can inflict on rabbits, even at some distance, without knowing quite how he does it. H. Mortimer Batten related an example in his book Habits and Characters of British Wild Animals, first published in the nineteen twenties: 'Presently I saw a rabbit quite close to me flatten down, flat as a rag, its eyes wide with terror. I guessed what was afoot, and a few seconds later a stoat came out of the wall and sat upright on a flat stone staring at the rabbit. He was obviously gloating over it, knowing it to be helpless, and every now and then he jerked his black-tipped tail into the air in a curiously excitable manner. Then he jumped off the stone and made straight for the rabbit, landing on its back and tearing its ears with his teeth. He also tore at it with his claws, making no attempt to kill it, but torturing it as a cat tortures a mouse. But the rabbit remained motionless, uttering never a sound, so the stoat returned to its perch on the stone and again glared at it in luxurious cruelty …' This went on several times until Batten could stand it no longer and shot the stoat.

Well documented also is the stoat's whirling, Dervish-like dance that mesmerises other animals until he darts forward and seizes one. Slightly less explicable is the dance that witnesses have reported that the stoat performs as if in triumph over its already dispatched prey: 'It gambolled round and round the dead bird' wrote one, 'sometimes almost turning head over heels; then it would break off to gallop madly into cover, and out again in what seemed to be a very ecstasy of triumph.' Stranger still is the fact that stoats carry their dead - appearing soon after one of their kind has been shot to drag the corpse into a hiding place.

It is perhaps such unnervingly anthropomorphic behaviours, along with their almost preternatural speed and sinuosity, that have given stoats a slightly uncanny character. They are elusive, usually solitary animals; collectively, however, they can induce a feeling of menace. Batten noted: 'On frosty nights I have heard packs of stoats throwing their tongues like little death hounds as they worked along the stone walls or through the screes. In spite of the smallness of the sound it is a very sinister one…'

No-one is really sure why stoats occasionally form packs. The ability to hunt bigger prey is one obvious motive, yet as many stoat packs have been recorded in times of plenty - high summer for instance - as during hard winters. A female stoat hunting with her large brood (usually between six and twelve) of kits, or an accidental meeting of two family groups, giving a false impression of an organised pack, has also been suggested. Yet the experience of a lorry driver near Thurso seems to suggest a definite, if inexplicable, purpose behind the gatherings: he stopped his vehicle to watch what he described as an army of stoats streaming across the road. They crossed in groups of threes and fours, and sixes and sevens for twenty minutes, all heading for the sea shore.

The most dramatic encounter with a stoat pack, however, was that of Suzanne Luff. It took place in the 1950s, and just as in folklore stoats bridge the natural and supernatural worlds, so Suzanne's story also bridges a great divide - between the Surrey of the stockbroker belt as we know it today, and the Surrey of barely a generation ago, the still almost medieval landscape near Dorking where she grew up.

'Shire horses were still worked on the steep slopes of the downs above the town,' she recalls, 'and Ranmore Common, by the Denbies estate on which generations of our family had lived and worked, was cut off by snow for months at a time in winter.' Two or three cars would pass in a week, and along with the cuckoo came the friendly, seasonal tramps, 'such as one-eyed Jack who spent the summer in a yew tree behind the post office.'

Children's pleasures were different then – Suzanne and her friends tobogganed down the smooth, russet slopes of fallen beech leaves on trays in autumn, and in summer sailed on the horse pond in a hip-bath. Their responsibilities were also more serious. When collectors came down from London and tried to bribe the estate children into revealing the secret locations of the rare butterfly orchids on Ranmore common, they remained steadfastly mute. The wooded common was bordered by a Pilgrim's Way, along which it was Suzanne's duty to walk half a mile to the dairy and back every morning and evening to collect the milk and return the empty cans.

'It was sometime between 1950 and 1952' Suzanne said, 'when I was eight or nine:
'I was going home from the dairy one evening in late September and I met two of the estate workers, Bob Tester the ostler who looked after the work horses and Ted Moore, a gardener, cutting back hedges, and I stopped to chat. "This is the second black winter we're going to have" they told me, meaning iron- cold, "and the stoats will probably pack. If you hear this noise"
– and Ted made a high-pitched chittering noise – "just you bloody run for it. And if you're too far from home, get up a tree. Those packs have been known to bring down horses, cattle, deer."

'Well no, I wasn't really frightened by this warning; you take things as a matter of course as a child. So I thought no more of stoats until the following January.

'I was returning from the dairy at about six o'clock on a bitterly cold night, but not dark because of starlight reflecting on the snow. I had gone past the ash tree at the crossroads when I heard a shrilling noise, a chittering of many tiny voices; it was exactly the noise that the gardener had made. I stopped and looked towards the wood and saw a shadow emerge from it about seventy yards away, and move over the snow towards me as if a cloud were passing over the moon.

'I ran back to the ash tree knowing I had to get up it somehow. I had never climbed it before, but, driven by desperation I jumped up and caught hold of the end of one of the low, sweeping branches, threw my legs over it, and shinned my way upside down towards the trunk. I scrambled into a V of branches and watched a wave of stoats break against the tree. There could have been fifty of them swarming round it, eyes glowing, for what must have been ten minutes but which seemed like hours. I was alternately praying and cursing, getting more and more frozen. Then they must have heard something because one of them suddenly gave a sharp commanding call. All the others immediately packed behind it and swarmed through the hedge on the other side of the lane. From my vantage point I could see them move over the adjoining field. When they were out of sight I collapsed out of my tree and ran all the way home.'

Perhaps it was anecdotal evidence such as Suzanne's – or an atavistic memory of such stories – on which Kenneth Grahame drew when he depicted weasels and stoats as the invaders from the Wild Wood who overrun Toad Hall in Wind in the Willows, overturning the old social order that maintained aristocratic Mr Toad. At the time Suzanne encountered the stoat pack there, the ancient Surrey woodland was undergoing just such a transition in reverse – from the Wild Wood, symbol of chaos in medieval cosmology, to the small, tame SSSI it is today.

In the following three decades the Sitka spruce overran the hardwoods and the big estates were broken up by death duties. 'Between them the Forestry Commission and property prices have done for Surrey,' laments Suzanne. As suburbia emasculates the wilderness, our contact with nature - so dramatically literalised in Suzanne's experience - is progressively denuded of the intensity that finds expression in folklore, myth and literature.

It seems 2005/6 is once again set to be what the ostler and gardener of the old Denbies estate called 'a black winter.' Will there again be stoat packs to menace the commuters and second-home owners who now occupy the old cottages? And if so, are there any of that endangered species – knowledgeable county people – left over from the time when the countryside was not just a collection of trees and fields but a cultural milieu, who will warn them to bloody run for it?

© Merrily Harpur 2005



J. Wentworth Day, (1937) Sporting Adventure

H. Mortimer Batten, (1922) Habits and Characters of British Wild Animals. The Mammal Society.

R.S. Hays, correspondence in The Field, 16 July 1964

Eric Parker writing in The Field, 1955

Suzanne Luff, personal communication