“Weasely”. Adjective. To be sneaky, devious, untrustworthy, promiscuous.
Let’s face it. weasels have a bad reputation. The sneaker and stealer, they have been accused of being witches’ familiars and carrying the souls of the dead. Shakespeare spoke of ‘weasel words’. In more modern culture, ‘the Weasel’ is a child-killer, a villain in the DC Suicide squad film franchise. But I side more with Harry Potter, which made the Weasley family the heroes of the hour. Because these small mammals are fascinating and deserve our admiration, not our dislike.
Normally, all you ever get of a weasel is a brief glimpse. They are one of those creatures you can never set out to find, only stumble across if you keep your eyes open. Being small and very low-slung, weasels have to contend with a body that is perfect for going down holes, but not so great at crossing rough grassland. Most of the time all you will ever see of a Weasel is a small, fluid motion, a bounding of brown on green as if the weasel is a dolphin on a grassy sea, porpoising up and down.
I was walking a path at a nature reserve recently when I found one of the volunteers staring fixedly into some open scrub and long grass. She was watching a weasel bound around, rushing here and there. It would disappear into the long grass and then suddenly pop its head up from somewhere else, like a living game of whack-a-mole, and I soon found my head constantly swivelling, scanning the grass, trying to guess where the animal would re-appear next. But then, fearlessly, it sprinted across the path, barely four feet in front of me. It careened around a tree stump, under some ivy, and back across the path. It ran up, and down and left and right and left again and across the path and back across the path and around the base of the tree and across the path again, in the desperate manner of someone who is late for an important meeting and knows that they put their car keys down somewhere. It was breath-taking and breathless and truly wonderful. A crowd gathered, all watching intently as the weasel spent about 20 minutes scurrying around an area perhaps twenty feet by twenty, the most concentrated dose of Weasel I’ve ever had in many long years of watching out for them.
The smallest members of the Mustelid family, weasels are part of the group of animals that includes (in rough order of size) the stoat, mink, ferret/polecat, pine marten, otter and badger. They all share the same body general plan of a toilet roll inner with a leg at each corner. This long, tubular body is ideal for going down holes, which is why all of the Mustelidae are burrowers. Add in the weasel’s conical face lined with razor-sharp teeth, and a relentless nature , and you have the perfect machine for hunting hole-dwelling creatures like the voles and mice that are its main diet. They rush around not out of fear, but out of hunger: a weasel may have to eat a third of its body weight every day just to stay alive, let alone raise young, which makes them into lethally efficient hunters. I once watched a weasel cross a footpath, and return less than 12 seconds later with a bank vole clamped in its jaws. It had taken that short time to find a vole burrow, attack and kill the vole, and wrangle its prey back out. Like many of their Mustelid cousins, weasels are famous for being fearless, often attacking prey substantially bigger than they are, including rats and rabbits. But for all that, a weasel is also predated, usually by birds of prey, but sadly also by humans due to their ability to raid chicken coops and take ground-nesting game birds.
In the end, the weasel streaked beneath the leaflitter, and I heard its rustles fade away. There was a small collective sigh from the watching crowd, as we all resumed our days out. I checked my camera, and every single photo was blurred, as if I’d been trying to photograph a bullet. I had shots of a disappearing back end, and several where the weasel was just too close for the camera to focus, which is not a problem I normally have. But nestled amongst them was one brief portrait of my new best friend. These days, there is only one name you can give to a Weasely animal: Ron. Which is a bit awkward, because given this weasel’s small size and slender stature, he was probably a she. Ronette, perhaps?