Saturday, 18 September 2010

Stoat funeral processions

It is very rare that I slip into the mind of a Fortean and actually write about something that cannot be examined scientifically, so please forgive me...

The reason for my slip is one Maurice Burton. A well known zoologist during his life, he wrote many books and articles dealing with natural history, but also looked at cryptozoology. I first came across him in Peter Costello’s In Search of Lake Monsters where he (Costello) repeatedly criticised Burton for hypothesising that the Loch Ness Monster, and many other such creatures, were rising and falling logs, as well as misidentifications. I am currently reading Just Like an Animal by Burton, which gives a wide range of examples showing that many traits that ignorant people assume are only possessed by Homo sapiens, as well as some “higher” apes, are found in a wide range of other animals. Indeed, the most polite animals on earth don’t actually have backbones...

Anyway, at one point he records some instances of animal funeral processions; the most interesting of which (well, there are only two examples given) regards a procession of stoats. He notes that “about a hundred stoats in twos [were] following four carrying the dead body of another stoat.” Apparently this was published in the Irish Times and it “carried the comment that the legend of such ‘funerals’ is persistent throughout Eire.” This was first published by him in More Animal Legends, so if anyone has that book I would be most grateful if you got in touch with me...

File:Mustela erminea upright.jpg

The only thing on the internet I can find that mentions other stoat funerals than this is a requiem entitled The Beauty and the Wonder of the Erne written by Charlie Ward who is a “journalist, broadcaster, and ardent angler.” This appears to have been published online in November 2009, but it provides no information on when it was actually written, who is/was Charlie Ward and when he saw the stoat funeral march. Anyway, he notes:

I watched a stoat's funeral. It was up at the Old Mill above Laputa, just before dark. Two-by-two they marched along the top of a wide, low wall, not twenty feet from me. Then came four with the corpse upside down between them, a leg in each sharp-toothed mouth.

“Ten more, two-by-two, followed, all making a low, whimpering, keening sound. The cortege, numbering about thirty or forty, disappeared into the culvert covering the old millrace, and went out of my life forever. Do stoats have communal cemeteries as elephants are reputed to have?”

This does sound like a similar story to Burton’s, but without his original book I cannot check the source. Regardless of whether this is a different reference or not, it does nothing to help support the existence of stoat funerals and burial processions. One hundred stoats marching in line is totally out of character for a stoat; most of the time they are fairly shy animals, though I, and many others, have seen them being very bold, especially if they are used to people. The closest I have got to a wild stoat was about 2” through a pane of glass before it got bored of me and decided to go down its hole under the chalet. I should note at this point that the stoat must have been incredibly tolerant of people because it had chosen to live in the middle of Centre Parks in Nottingham...

Stoats are also highly territorial and are usually seen singly. The only times that more than one may be seen at a time is when they are mating, fighting, or the parents with their young. To my knowledge, one hundred stoats together have never been reported other than the two references above, but if anyone knows of any others I would be most interested in reading them.

So, based on some simple knowledge of stoat behaviour, we can discount the existence of stoat funerals, and I would suggest that these are purely folkloric ideas with no basis in reality. The written sightings of such things are highly likely to be hoaxes, however, I would be quite happy to take back my opinion if it turns out there is a good body of evidence to support such events. A photo of such a funeral procession, consisting of around one hundred stoats wearing waistcoats and top hats, would do very nicely.

1 comment:

  1. Why is the ermine considered to be a dirty beast?

    Because onto itself it is a luxuriant bedsheet, but it has no change of linen and must do its laundry with its tongue!