The weasel-related stoat is rarely seen in nature. It avoids people and is a nocturnal animal. Its number is declining, so it is now a protected animal. That is why this year it was chosen as the Mammal of the Year by the Vadonleső program, which is operated by the Ministry of Agriculture (MoD) and the Herman Ottó Institute Nonprofit Ltd. with the cooperation of the Hungarian Natural History Museum.
The Vadonleső program has been collecting spread and endangerment data for 18 protected plant and animal species since 2009 with the involvement of volunteers. The “Mammal of the Year” initiative was launched seven years ago to raise awareness of the importance of a protected or highly protected mammal species through a series of events throughout the year.
“The stoat is the grandmaster of hiding: in summer – brown on the back, light on the belly – it replaces his fur on its full body with snow-white on snowy winters, only the end of its tail remains black even then. As snowy winters become increasingly sparse and shorter due to climate change, the appearance of stoat with winter fur is now slowly rivaling the rarity of the Scotch mist,” said the MoD.
They added that stoat prefers grassy areas, near water, dotted with tree groups, sometimes under agricultural cultivation. It survives in a habitat where cultivation is not intensive: areas heavily treated with rodenticides and insecticides, fertilizers, and soil improvers are unsuitable for them. This predator beds in earth holes, rabbit and hamster homesteads, rock crevices, wall cracks, under stone-heaps, tree den, long-uninhabited buildings, or similar hiding places.
The stoat is native to the tundra and temperate forests of Asia, Europe, and North-America. Its size depends on its habitat and sex, European ones are approximately 20-33 cm long, and American ones can grow up to 44 cm. Males can be twice the size of females. It is an extremely skilled hunter, able to catch prey bigger than himself. Their natural enemies are owls, foxes, cats, and people who decrease their numbers by trapping them because of their precious fell. Unfortunately, their quantity has dropped considerably due to demand for their fur and human agricultural activities. Its nature conservation value is 50 thousand forints.
Although the mating season lasts from May to August, the embryos do not start to develop until the end of winter. 4-5 cubs are born after 30 days of gestation. The fur of the newborns is white, their eyes closed. They are already eating solid food at the age of 4 weeks. However, the family stays together for months while the mother teaches the little ones to hunt. Despite being a close relative of the ferret, it cannot be domesticated.
The Vadonleső program is a data provision system connected with nature observation and attitude formation, which has grown into one of the most significant so-called Citizen Science projects in Hungary. The Mammal of the Year is a year-round series of events in which scientific and promotional programs about the given species are organized, and competitions for children and youngsters are announced.