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Wild Life in the West Highlands

FOR many weeks during this winter we have had a most interesting and somewhat unusual visitor, literally about our door, in the person of a white stoat or ermine. It was first noticed toward the end of November, hunting among the shrubs under the windows ; it was then already in its winter snowy dress, save only a patch of brown on the nape of the neck, which patch remained throughout the winter. Often seen during December, it appeared gradually to grow more confiding and tame, frequenting the banks of a little burn flowing close to the house, where on one occasion it was seen climbing with perfect ease in the branches of a tall hazel bush, some ten or twelve feet at least from the ground. According to our winter custom, food for the birds was each morning put out, and by the second week of January the little ermine was to be seen running in among the crowd of chaffinches, blackbirds, tits, and other pensioners, selecting a suitable morsel, with which it scampered off into the nearest bushes. A lean-to outbuilding at the back of the house, under which the rats had made their runs, proved an attractive shelter for our pretty visitor, although not more than four or five yards from the windows ; from this it would dart out to the food-supply and return with its chosen tit-bit. Never once did it make the slightest attempt to attack any of the birds feeding there in flocks; nor did they seem to take much notice of their somewhat uncanny visitor, merely fluttering aside a few yards until it disappeared again.

Nothing could be more graceful or agile than this lithe little creature in all its movements and actions, sometimes sitting up like a squirrel, or bounding away like a flash when a specially attractive morsel was secured. As the days lengthened and became milder its visits grew rarer, its regular stay coming to an end about the middle of February, some three months from its first appearance. By this time, no doubt, the field-mice and voles were stirring from their winter torpor, and its natural prey would be more to its taste than the food provided for the birds, supplemented as that was by little delicacies specially provided for it under an inverted box in a quiet corner. Even in the first week of March, our little friend was seen playing like a puppy with a piece of white paper, not a gunshot from the house.

Some winters ago a white stoat paid us a similar visit, and might have remained; but most unfortunately found an untimely end in a rat-trap placed in the afore-mentioned outhouse, where no one had dreamt that it would venture.

This friendly visit has had a result that seems worthy of emphasis. Previously there were always a certain number of rats about; but since the stoat first appeared not one has been seen. There were also moles in the immediate neighbourhood which caused trouble and annoyance; but these, too, have vanished. One reads much of late of the plague of rats which threatens to become not merely a nuisance but a positive danger; yet everywhere the stoat and the weasel are labelled `vermin' and ruthlessly destroyed by the gamekeeper, who, after all, is only obeying orders given to him by those who might surely know better.

It is an undisputed fact that the game-preserver has no worse enemy than the rat; yet he spares neither time nor trouble to destroy the very means provided by an all-wise Providence to keep them in check. It is an old story this, the heavy hand of unthinking and narrow-minded men destroying the balance of Nature; yet Nature's laws are not to be broken with impunity. Some of us may yet see the day when stoats and weasels will be imported at great expense, and all too late; just as was seen in Australasia when the rabbit trouble first threatened to overwhelm the run-holders there.

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