by Dr June McNicholas & Dr Jeff Lewis
Just over a year ago I wrote an article about 'Wispa', our hand-reared weasel jill who came to us from Julie Stoodley's Sleaford Ferret Rescue. Here is an update on this tiny cousin to our domestic ferrets.
Wispa was only weeks old when she came to us and was very tame. In fact she was a real extrovert, delighting visitors with her antics as she bounced around in her large cage on the kitchen dresser, throwing her toys about and leaping in her hammock like a trampoline. She adored showing off and would do so at every opportunity, making little 'chirring' noises as she played. One of her favourite treats was to be brushed with a blusher brush which made her lie on her back squirming and giggling in delight. Her love of Whiskas cat food and human playmates made it seem completely impossible for her to ever be returned to the wild. But then something in her changed. Maybe she grew up and wild weasel instincts took over from human-induced behaviours. At any rate, she stopped wanting to play so much, and became less willing to be handled. More than that, she stopped liking her brush. Something had definitely changed! Then she escaped. She didn't go far, only to explore the bedrooms, but that seemed to make her even more discontented, as if she now knew there was a world beyond the kitchen and her cage.
We were in something of a dilemma. How could she go into the wild? She had never had a mother to show her how to hunt or what to eat. She might not even know what might eat her. Weasels are tiny, only a few ounces in weight, and we have more than our fair share of predators in the Highlands, ranging from birds of prey to wild cats, pine martens and foxes. It was a hard decision to take. In the end we decided to try and see if she would accept 'real' weasel food. Local people robbed their cats of their catches of mice and voles to donate to the 'Wispa campaign'. We even had a succulent vole arrive via the local postbus, sent by a thoughtful lady a few miles away. Wispa took to wild prey very happily, usually dancing in front of her prey before seizing it. This gave us hope. Weasels and stoats are famous for their 'dance of death' in which they dance and play wildly to lull their prey into a trance-like sense of curiosity before pouncing. Wispa's meals were dead already but she seemed to know the routine. She also seemed to know that lumps of soil contained tasty worms and grubs. We felt that she would at least know what to eat if she was released.
The next stage was to move her out of the house. Her cage was put into the hay shed and we slowly reduced our contact with her until the only times we visited were to feed her. She began to hide when we entered. This seemed sad but was exactly what was needed, she had to learn to be fearful. Then we felt we could do no more to prepare her. By now it was early May 2004.
The weather was warm, there were lots of young mice and voles around, and lots of birds' nests with eggs. Feeding would be easy. It was now or never, so we opened her cage and left her to decide what to do.
Wispa stayed in the hay shed for a day or two, possibly going in and out of her cage, we aren't sure, but we put her food down as usual in case she needed it. Then she disappeared. For two or three days we agonised over what had happened, then she appeared on the dry-stone wall next to the hay shed. She glanced briefly in our direction and then shot into a crevice. The next day she turned up in the old stone cattle byre, running along the ledge under the low eaves. Then she was seen in the front hedgerow, and later alongside our raccoon pen. Just as we thought she was adapting to the wild, she turned up back in the house! To be exact, weasel-poo turned up in the house. Somehow she was coming in and leaving her calling card! This became quite a regular occurrence, especially in bad weather, and we often heard her running under floor boards and through the loft spaces in our old croft-house. We even started to use her as a weather forecast as she always seemed to turn up in the house a few hours before bad weather!
The weather did not get worse than the storm in January 2005. Up here in the Western Highlands it reached hurricane proportions with winds topping 128 mph. We lost many huge trees on our land and nearly all our field shelters. We were seriously worried about Wispa. Yet, three days afterwards, she popped up behind the stone barn and reappeared back in the cattle byre which had become one of her favourite haunts.
Since then, Wispa has been seen fairly frequently although she seems not to have ventured beyond the area around the sheds and barns. Maybe she does not need to. There are mice and voles aplenty and she is safest from predators when close to the house and barns.
By the time this is printed, Wispa will have been living wild for a year. Many weasels do not survive their first year so we see this as a sort of landmark. When we do see her she looks plump and glossy. We sometimes feel sad to have lost such a fascinating companion, but so proud of her that she is now living the life to which she was born to live, wild and free.
(First published April 2005)