Small but effective killers - Roger Ratcliffe observes weasels near Fountains Abbey

There appears to be lots of different collective nouns for weasels; probably more words, in fact, than the number of weasels which most of us are ever likely to see together.

I went in search of the word after coming across three of the long and slim gingery coated mammals on the edge of moorland to the west of Fountains Abbey.

As is so often the case, my best wildlife observations are presented to me whenever I pause for a random coffee stop, and a dilapidated wall had provided me with an ideal seat while I finished my flask in the 
fading light of a November afternoon.

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I had been there for about ten minutes when the first of these little beauties suddenly popped into view a little further along the wall.

My attention had been drawn by a high-pitched trill, and when I looked up the weasel seemed oblivious to my presence. It may be that I was down wind and undetected by its exceptionally keen sense of smell.

Within a few seconds two more weasels were on the wall, thus meeting the criteria for what I now know to be a boogle of weasels. Alternatively, it could have been a confusion of weasels, or a gang, a pack or - my favourite - a sneak of weasels.

It was unclear to me what it was that these particular weasels were doing on the wall, individually or collectively, but less than a minute after I had raised my binoculars and caught them in my sights they were gone.

It was quite possible that what I had witnessed was a mother teaching its kits how to hunt. If they were second-brooders, born late in the summer, the youngsters would be close to the point where the family splits up and the kits go their separate ways.

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This higglety pigglety wall offered numerous crevices to harbour the weasel’s main diet of field mice and voles. It is Britain’s smallest carnivore and highly destructive to other wildlife. It can even kill birds on the ground, and in the spring can wipe out an entire nest of eggs or young in minutes, which is one reason why they are trapped by gamekeepers.

Weasels and their larger cousins, stoats, famously do a so-called war dance to confuse, disorient or even hypnotise their prey. This technique is how they are able to kill rats, something that was witnessed many years ago by the Yorkshire naturalist Stewart Collier near Pickering in North Yorkshire.

Collier described the scene at this: “During the kill only a furry ball could be seen in which the weasel was rapidly spinning round the rat. At first it was thought that at least two weasels were present but when the rat was dead the lone weasel dragged it into cover.”

Similes associated with weasels provide a clear idea of their character. For instance, 
“as quarrelsome as a weasel” was earned by their fierce defence of territory, which can be as large as a dozen football pitches.

Another example is “as quick as a weasel”, which any motorist who has spotted one running low and fast across the road ahead of them will understand.