On the forteana newsgroup, Merrilly Harpur wrote:
'Hi Jon, re:
I read Richard's material on pygmy weasels with great interest. When I was researching my book Pig Overboard (Robson Books, 1980s), a collection of strange (highly fortean) letters to 'The Field' magazine, I came across a long correspondence about pygmy weasels, poss. new species etc. As far as I can recall the correspondents were in East Anglia and Dorset, and claimed the country people called the miniature weasel a 'miniver.' Wish I could remember more - will search my files. The copies of The Field I examined were from about 1950 to 1975. They were a fantastic treasure trove - wonder if they still exist.
This rang a bell in my increasingly mangled synapses, so I had a look at Appendix 4 of my Smaller Mystery Carnivores of the Westcountry, which I reproduce here in full:
THE IRISH STOAT, THE PYGMY WEASEL, & MUIRHEAD’S MYSTERY MUSTELIDS
(Many thanks to Richard Muirhead for his tireless research)
It is generally believed that only one species of weasel, (M.nivalis) and one stoat (M. erminea) exist in the British Isles. Within recent historical times, however, it was widely believed that there were two species of weasel and two species of stoat within these islands. In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, I am prepared to concur entirely with the currently held view, but in the interests of scientific completeness, and also because, even as I write, the Centre for Fortean Zoology and its representatives are regularly approached by members of the public who believe in one or both species, I present here, the sum total of our records on the subject.
Richard Muirhead has spent some months investigating reports of dwarf weasels from various parts of the country, including the island of Anglesey and parts of Cumbria. The idea of such an animal is not particularly new. Writing in 1989 Sleeman noted:
“The frequent existence of a second litter, coupled with the difference in size between the sexes are the factors that give rise to stories about two types of weasels; ordinary and pygmy weasels existing side by side. In some rural areas such weasels are called ‘minivers’. (1)
Richard has discovered that these creatures are still widely believed to exist and in some areas are known as ‘Squeazels’. (2) The details of the Anglesey animals are obscure, (3) but it appears that they are lighter in colour than one would expect and have been reported as being white.
Richard Muirhead writes:
“From a letter I received on the 28th July it appears that they live on Anglesey, in the valley area near Holyhead. They have also been reported from Cumbria, Shropshire and Yorkshire. They eat pheasant chicks and inhabit mole holes, hence the nickname of ‘squeasels’. They were caught, in the 1920s and 1930s, in the areas surrounding Church Stretton, Craven Arms and
Ludlow in Shropshire. They are, according to my correspondent still seen, near a farm near Llanfair near Valley. (NB LL65 2HF).
There appear to be two types. They are of identical size but one is quite a light colour and some are much darker. The darker animals are rarer. They inhabit areas like stone walls. My informant saw an old one with some babies recently”. (4)
These colour variations do not seem to be consistent with those generally reported from either young or female weasels of the normal race. (5) The hunt continues.
It is generally agreed that the stoat (Mustela erminea) is found all over the British Isles, and unlike the weasel (or probably the polecat, although this is uncertain) is found in Ireland. Some reports, however, refer to a separate species, the Irish stoat (Mustela hibernica) and it is interesting to note that there seem to be several different opinions as to what exactly it is, and if in fact, it exists.
It is unclear whether or not it is believed that both the ‘normal’ species of stoat and the ‘Irish’ variety co-exist in Ireland, or whether or not only the disputed species is found. Sleeman (1989). (5) refers to an animal the size of an ordinary weasel (Irish stoats are often referred to as ‘weasels’ although true weasels are confined to the mainland) on which the dividing line between the reddish upper parts and the white belly is much less well defined than on the mainland animal.
Praeger, (6) in 1950, wrote:
“The Irish stoat (Mustela hibernica) is now considered a different species from that found in Britain, on account of its smaller size and darker colour with less ‘whitish’ underneath; the lips and rims of the ears are dark, while in the English stoat they are light-coloured. Also the white winter coat, assumed by the animal in the colder parts of the range, and frequently in Britain, is
scarcely ever seen.
‘Common as the animal is in Ireland’ writes Thompson, ‘I have never seen or heard of a white one being taken in winter. Towards the end of our most severe winters in the north, I never saw any change of fur in these animals. Yet, in the part of Scotland closest to Ireland, where the difference of climate from that on the opposite coast must be most trivial, the stoat becomes white every winter’. This active and daring little animal is common throughout Ireland,
where it is usually called ‘weasel’ (which is ‘Mustela nivalis’), and is sometimes also mistaken for the polecat (Mustela putorius); but neither of these relations of the stoat is found in Ireland. It is interesting to note that the Isle of Man is colonised by the Irish, not the English stoat (Mustela erminea stabilis)”.
I discovered an interesting codicil to this story. In 2002 when the CFZ were actively engages hunting for a giant catfish in the Martin Mere wildfowl reserve (see my book The Monster of the Mere for details), the head naturalist there, the late Pat Wisniewski, told me that the Irish stoats were also to be found at Martin Mere. This is particularly interesting, not only because the western portion of Martin Mere has a singular wildlife of its own, but because I also saw a young stoat of normal size and shape there. It appears that both races peacefully co-exist there, although, as far as I know, there is no data available on whether they interbreed.
Moffat (7) also confirms that Irish stoats are known as ‘weasels’. There is some confusion here because he seems to refer to the Irish stoat as being distinct only at a subspecific level, although other references cited are convinced that it is a distinct species. Praeger refers several times to Thompson’s classic 1856 work on Irish Natural History, (8) but elsewhere Thompson and others (9) collect a few records of the white winter colouration, which suggests that this variety of stoat, whether or not it is distinct at a specific level, is less prone to this mode of protective colouration than is its English counterpart. This is valuable corroborative evidence for a degree of speciation.
Thompson’s book also, incidentally, contains the original reference to the Antrim beech marten specimen referred to in the main text of this book, but Thompson seems to suggest that the beech marten is by far the rarest of the two marten species living in Ireland. The final record we have of the Irish stoat is so different that, again, it appears to refer to another animal altogether. Scharff (1922) writes: (10)
“Related to the Marten is the Irish stoat (Easog), commonly called ‘weasel’ in Ireland, an animal quite distinct from the British stoat, and even more so from the true weasel. It is unknown outside Ireland, and is much larger than the weasel. It differs from the English stoat in having the ears and upper lip dark in colour, and in so far as it rarely turns quite white in winter”.
We, therefore, have a weasel-sized animal with stoat colouration, a dark, stoat-sized animal
that may or may not turn white in the winter, and an animal half-way between the weasel and the stoat in size, which sometimes turns white in winter, but sometimes doesn’t.
When you also consider the mystery of the Antrim beech marten and the disputed question
of whether or not there is an indigenous population of polecats, the only thing that remains clear is that there is a lot of work still to be done regarding the precise speciation of the Irish mustelidae.
Other references to the Irish stoat occur in The Irish Naturalists Journal Volume 1, numbers 8 (p. 150 – 1), 11 (p. 219 and p. 271), Volume 2, (p. 44 and 73), and Volume 4 (p. 64).
Richard Muirhead has unearthed several other reports, which appear to refer to anomalous
or in some cases, mysterious mustelids. These, I have not been able to either research or confirm, and as he has provided the rest of the material in this appendix then, again, in the interests of completeness, they should be included here.
He has a brief record of ‘reddish’ polecats which are reported quite regularly from several locations of the Cardiganshire plateau. Amongst other odd coloured mustelids, are an peculiar animal on display in the window of a butcher’s shop in Stockbridge, Wiltshire. (See left)
It was supplied by a local taxidermist. When approached for details of mustelids he had encountered, Muirhead discovered that although he didn’t believe in the existence of a pygmy variety of weasel, he had come across one albino specimen, and although he had never encountered pine martens in the area, he described an animal he called a ‘corn marten’, which he said was now very rare, and “paler than a normal marten”.
Cryptozoologists in future years may well have yet another animal to consider; the CORU marten. Richard Muirhead wrote to a Wiltshire newspaper appealing for information about the corn marten, as described above. The newspaper misprinted his request, and so an appeal went out to several thousand hapless Wiltshire men and women for information on the CORU-marten. It is frightening to think quite how many zoological mysteries may have no more substance than a spelling mistake such as this one!
When one considers quite how many ‘animals’ are given considerable coverage in books on cryptozoology, purely on the basis of one uncorroborated sighting or newspaper story, the story of the ‘Coru-marten’ is, perhaps, of more significance than it would otherwise have seemed.
It seems appropriate that for the final animal in this book, we return to Devonshire for
one final mystery animal from the pages of Richard Muirhead’s notebooks. (11) (12)
A 1923 report describes a mustelid which is “not a polecat”, said to live in Devon in
about 1900. It is described as greyish with a remarkably broad head, and Muirhead says
that its identity was a “complete mystery” to the local people who encountered it!
1. SLEEMAN P Stoats and Weasels, Polecats and Martens (1989).
2. MUIRHEAD R conversation November 1995.
3. Unnamed article in Country Life 1975 via R. Muirhead.
4. MUIRHEAD R pers. corr. to JD 29.7.95.
5. SLEEMAN P Stoats and Weasels, Polecats and Martens (1989).
6. PRAEGER R.L. Natural History of Ireland p.73 (1950).
7. MOFFAT C.B. The Mammals of Ireland (Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy
Vol. 44 (b) p. 61 – 128. (1938).
8. THOMPSON W. The Natural History of Ireland (4 Vols, Bohn, London 1856).
9. The Irish Naturalist (March 1895).
10. SCHARFF R.F. Guide to the collection of Irish Animals. (Dublin, Stationers Office;
11. MUIRHEAD R. pers. corr. to JD 21.2.95.
12. GORDON Wildlife of Devon (1923).