White Stoats in Yorkshire

One of the things I love about watching wildlife is its wonderful unpredictability. You can wait on high alert for hours in a bird hide, surrounded by telescope-toting experts scanning every square inch of the landscape, and be rewarded with just a few carrion crows and wood pigeons. Or you can blunder across one of nature’s gems completely by chance while your mind is elsewhere.

This is the story of one of these strokes of serendipity, featuring a moderately high hill and a slightly dodgy fitness tracker.

Pen-y-ghent stands 2,277 feet (694 metres) above sea level in some of the wildest and most spectacular scenery in the Yorkshire Dales. On long summer days, hundreds of walkers put themselves to the test by toiling to the summit and then trudging on to scale nearby (and slightly higher) Whernside and Ingleborough to complete the 24-mile Three Peaks Challenge.

Today, though – a weekday in mid-January – it’s much more peaceful. We’re climbing Pen-y-Ghent from the village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, following the route that takes you past Bracken Bottom Farm and up onto the high fells. This definitely isn’t a wildlife expedition; it’s two old friends (well, middle-aged maybe…) having a good chat and pausing every now and then to admire the phenomenal views when the ascent starts to get a bit too lung-busting.

We climbed this hill last February, slithering on treacherous ice and struggling to steer clear of snow drifts. Today, though, it’s unseasonably mild – so mild, in fact, that we have to stop to take off some of our warmer clothing.

Half an hour further on, I realise that my fitness tracker has vanished from my wrist. We speculate that its rather inadequate clasp must have come loose during the impromptu clothing change and it’s probably now lying somewhere next to the track a mile or so lower down.

Time for a change of plan. We press on to the summit, with its magnificent views of a cloud-enveloped Ingleborough. But then, instead of descending the western flank of Pen-y-Ghent, we head back down towards Horton-in-Ribblesdale the same way we came in the faint hope that we’ll find the missing fitness tracker.

We’ve just scrambled our way gingerly down the second rocky section, when I spot a flash of white against the green landscape. At first, I think it’s a rabbit’s tail. Then I realise the whole animal appears to be white as it romps up the field towards us. It watches us for a few seconds, and I get a good view of its pointy, inquisitive face before it vanishes into a burrow.

It’s a first for me – a stoat in ermine. This thick, white fur was particularly sought-after by European royalty and nobility. Personally, I prefer it to be worn by the original owner.

I’ve seen stoats before, but always in their more usual colours – predominantly light brown back, creamy-white throat and belly. They’re larger than weasels, have a longer, black-tipped tail, and bound about more exhuberantly, rather than running close to the ground.

So, what’s made our Pen-y-Ghent stoat turn white? The answer is that it seems to be something of a calculated gamble on the animal’s part. If there’s snow on the ground, the stoat will be well camouflaged to help protect it from predators and maybe also to give it an advantage when it comes to hunting rabbits and other prey. The downside, of course, is that if there’s no lying snow, the white stoat stands out like a sore thumb against a green or brown background, making it more conspicuous to predators, prey and wildlife enthusiasts.

I report the sighting to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which tells me that three factors help determine whether stoats develop ermine fur – time of year (winter), altitude and geographical location. If you live in Northern Scotland, you’re unlikely to see stoats in their traditional brown colours in winter. If you live in the South of England, a white stoat is probably about as common as a unicorn.
Our stoat was at an altitude of around 500 metres (1,640 feet). If we’d spotted another one at the foot of the hill, would it have been predominantly brown or white?

One other – perhaps fanciful – thought occurs to me. The first half of the winter was unusually mild in Yorkshire, with very little snow and frost. A couple of days after our ascent of Pen-y-Ghent, much colder weather piled in. Could it be that the stoat was anticipating this change in the weather and had only recently made the switch from brown to white in order to blend in better with its surroundings?

By the way, just in case you’re wondering, my eagle-eyed friend succeeded in reuniting me with my missing fitness tracker – our second-best find of the day.

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Wildlife enthusiast, walker and journalist. Lives in Yorkshire.

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