Saturday, February 23, 2013

Weasel world's smallest carnivourous mammal

The first time I saw a weasel, nearly thirty years ago, I was at Wied il-Luq in Buskett. I was flat on my stomach taking pictures of a small beetle when I got the impression that I was being watched. 

I looked up and saw a weasel standing on its hind legs a few metres away from me. It was concentrating on a patch of ivy which grew on the nearby wall. As I looked up it looked at me and ran into the ivy. I assumed that seeing me so close by was such a shock that I would not see it again but within a couple of seconds it reappeared holding a large rat in its mouth. 

In less time than it takes to take a deep breath it had crossed the open space and still holding the rat in its mouth disappeared in the thick bramble that grew in the deeper part of the valley.

This encounter was so brief that I did not have enough time to take a picture of this rare and elusive mammal. I have seen other weasels since then but it was never for more than a few seconds.  

The weasel, known in Maltese as ballottra, is the smallest carnivorous mammal in the world. It has a slender body which enables it to enter burrows and narrow crevices to follow rats, mice and other small animals on which it preys.

The species found in Malta which is also known as the least weasel is indigenous throughout Europe and most parts of North Africa, Asia and North America. It is missing from Ireland, Iceland and eastern Canada. It has also been introduced to other parts of the world including New Zealand and Australia. In the Maltese archipelago it is found only on the island of Malta where it can be found in most rural habitats hunting during the day as well as during the night.

Its fur is reddish-brown with a white belly. In northern countries in wintertime may become pure white and is so well camouflaged that it is next to impossible to see it in the snow.
Weasels are solitary animals and are never seen in pairs. Males and females fight even when they have to get together to mate. In Malta the young are born in April and May and when food is plentiful they can raise another brood in July or August. 

This article was published in The Times on 15 July 2009.

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