by Dr June McNicholas
I have been extremely lucky. Not only have I worked, showed and kept ferrets for almost twenty years, and used them in my work with disabled and hospitalised children, but I have also had the privilege of working 'hands on' with all of our UK mustelids, plus a number of more exotic mustelids in other parts of the world. For example, the tayra and grison in South America, and the zorilla and ratel in Africa. Not to mention the wonderful Black-Footed Ferret of North America. All have been very special to me.
So I thought that maybe readers may be interested in the distant cousins of their domestic ferrets and might like to hear of some of the stories of the otters, pine martens, stoats, badgers and otters that I have raised, as well as the distant cousins I have worked with in other continents.
I thought I'd start with the smallest of the UK mustelids, the weasel 'Wispa' was a young weasel that came to me after being rescued from a dog who, happily, had a soft mouth and found her in a tussock of grass in the English Midlands. Her age was about 4 weeks, so her eyes had not opened, nor could she feed on solid food. As no suitable adoption centre could accommodate her at the time, her rescuers came to me, at that time in the Scottish Highlands. I found that a modified mix of Esbilac was successful, fed through a tiny dropper every two hours (day and night!). My social/personal life was somewhat limited as you can guess! Wispa flourished and soon was able to tackle solid food in the form of Whiskers Pouches for cats. Not only did she flourish physically, she also became very tame and playful. As weasels are very small (they say a weasel can pass through a wedding ring) I had to think about caging that would be suitable. In the end I opted for a large 'Ferplast' cage with a domed perspex lid, instead of the wire meshing. Wispa loved it. She was given a tiny hammock, a bedding box, lots of toys and she became a tiny ferret in my world.
The older she got, the tamer she became. Her chief love was to be taken out if her cage and allowed to run around on the kitchen table. Her movements were so fast that it was difficult to keep your eyes on her, let alone keep up with her movements. She loved being played with, especially if someone had a blusher brush when she would lie on her back and chirrup with pleasure when someone tickled her tummy. She also developed the habit of sticking her tongue through a hole (meant for a drinking bottle) and waggling it at any visitors to the croft! She really seemed to love human company.
Wispa seemed so tame that it looked unlikely that she would ever be able to be released into the wild.... but then one day she escaped. She didn't go far, only explored the bedrooms and the upper floor of my 18th century croft, but it was, seemingly, enough for her to know there was a bigger world outside her cage in the kitchen. She gave up wanting to be played with, avoided her blusher brush, and looked out longingly at the world from her Ferplast cage.
It was a difficult decision. By now she was 5 months old, mature in weasel terms. Did she want to go back to the wild? My problem was that she had never had any natural food, I'd just fed her on ferret food and Whiskas' pouches, not readily available in the wild up here in Scottish Highlands! After some soul searching, I decided that maybe Wispa should be given the chance to be a wild animal, starting first with her natural diet. Up here, weasels feed mainly on mice and voles, with additional supplements of various beetles and other insects. Thanks to my ferrets, I had very few mice and voles on the croft but I put the word out that I needed dead mice and voles that were free from any poisons.
It's a remote area up here, only about 40 houses in 60 miles, but word gets around. Soon, I was getting deliveries from our local post-bus. Simple envelopes addressed to me, often tattered and blood-stained, started to arrive as local folk robbed their cats of their prey and parcelled up the mice or voles. What the local postie thought of me when I went into raptures of little dead bodies in envelopes is still a mystery! Wispa took to the new food without a second thought. In fact, she even performed the 'weasel dance of death' whereby weasels 'dance' around their prey before attacking. Clearly, instinct told her what to do. Over the weeks she was also given worms, beetles (I baulked at showing her how to take the wings off beetles!) and she was ready to face life in the wild.
I opted for a 'soft release' i.e. she would be given a place close to her 'home' with her cage and a lot of support feeding, just to see how she got on in her early days away from home. It was the 5th of May when I put her into the hay-shed, along with her cage, a lot of food and a tearful farewell. Over the next few days and weeks, Wispa seemed to cope well. She often appeared in the drystone walls of the croft, watching me as I fed the sheep or did other jobs on the croft. She took some of the food I supplied, but was obviously feeding herself. One day I heard outraged screaming in one of my ferret pens in the stone cattle byre. There was Wispa, stuck in a crevice in the drystone wall surrounded by a mob of young hobs. They were more curious than aggressive but Wispa was obviously not having any of it! I gathered the up the teenage yobs and Wispa disappeared into her own world.
Gradually, the sightings of Wispa grew less frequent, although if bad weather occurred she would sneak back into the house via a gap under the kitchen door (smaller than a wedding ring!) and I would become aware of her presence, firstly with a little delivery of poo on the bathmat (her favourite marking place!) and the sound of her chasing any mice under the floorboards of the bedrooms. She was no longer tame although she never seemed to mind that she and I saw each other. We just exchanged looks, and went on our respective ways.
Months passed, Wispa could occasionally be seen on the croft, for which I was thankful. At least she seemed to be holding her own out there. Then, the following Spring, she was disappeared for some weeks. At the time I had a good friend visiting the croft and we took a morning stroll down to the shoreline of the croft to see if one of my otters (another story!) was about. About a quarter of a mile from the house my friend suddenly said 'OOh, a weasel!' On the banks of the loch, amongst bracken and native shrubs, was a little weasel on her hindlegs watching us. It was Wispa, now quite a long way from her home. Wispa had always responded to a special call from me, like the sound of a kiss, or tut-tut sound of noise. I made the sound and the weasel came closer. She didn't want to be touched, nor did she get particularly close, but for about ten minutes we greeted each other before she went off to her den. I knew it was Wispa, wild weasels don't act that way. Also, most mustelids have distinctive markings somwhere or other. In Wispas' case it was a small chestnut spot in her otherwise white bib. She acknowledged us, and she seemed happy, healthy and content. It was exactly one year from her release.
About six weeks later Wispa reappeared at the croft with six baby weasels in tow! I am not ashamed to say I wept at the sight. Again, Wispa did not want to be touched, nor did she come very close, but she was not afraid of showing herself and her youngsters to me in the safe haven of the drystone wall. She was a truly wild weasel but with the added advantage of knowing where to come to get food and shelter if things got tough!
Wispa appeared for four years after that, often with a clutch of youngsters with her. Then no more. Weasels have a lot of natural predators up here. Buzzards, cats, eagles, pine martens - you name it, we have predators up here! However, 4-5 years is a massively old age for wild weasels and I think Wispa did well. Her offspring are still in evidence on the croft. A flash of chestnut fur disappearing into the undergrowth, or a brief glimpse of a tiny red ferret at the feed bins. Wispa taught her babies well!
All I can say is that it was a privilege to have Wispa, and to have her as part of my life for almost five years was an incredible experience. It was tough letting her go but she made it and now her offspring are doing well. I guess that's all anyone dealing with wildlife rehabilitation can hope for.
Wispa happened quite early in my time at the croft. Her legacy is that from then onwards, I offered my land as a rehabilitation area for any wild animal needing it. Teaming up with the Highland Wildlife Hosipital, I have had a number of wonderful animals come to me. Not just mustelids, but birds of prey, hedgehogs, deer, wild goats, and orphans of almost every kind you can think. All have their stories.
But this newsletter is primarily devoted to mustelids, so maybe next issue I'll write about 'Squirt', a tiny otter cub who is even now living on my croft as wild otter and has raised her third litter of cubs entirely as a wild otter (excepting, of course, her occasional visits to my kitchen, just to see that I'm OK! - my kitchen gets quite crowded with visiting wildlife sometimes!) Squirt was the first of my five otter cubs raised and rehabilitated on the croft, sometimes with the added competition of greedy pine marten babies, orphaned lambs and other wildlife babies.
But, as I said, those are other stories!