Changing colour of the stoat could signal a White Christmas

Posted on 6:48 AM by Sameer Shah

The weather forecasters are not expecting a White Christmas, but mother nature may have a different opinion.

For in the grounds of a ruined 600-year-old monastery in North Yorkshire something strange has happened.

The stoats that now inhabit the place where Carthusian monks once dwelt in hermit-like isolation are turning white much earlier than usual.

In winter, the fur of a stoat - a type of weasel - turns from brown to white. To give the creature natural camouflage against predators its entire body goes white as snow, except for the black tip of its tail.

Last year, the stoats of Mount Grace Priory, near Osmotherley, didn't change colour into January and stayed white later than if to predict the late snowfall that followed.

Although the transformation is unpredictable, it rarely happens so soon.

So could the 2008 development be a sign of things to come or just a reflection of the recent icy weather?

Experts who monitor stoat activity at the English Heritage site are watching developments with interest.

Becky Wright, from English Heritage and a member of the Mammal Society, said: 'Some of the stoats went white after the last New Year and stayed that way for much longer than we’d expected.

'Then we had a snowy Easter, showing that they have a sixth sense about these things.

'On that basis, the stoats could be offering a sign that we may need to wrap up warm for quite a few more months. Perhaps they know a white Christmas is on the cards.'

The stoat’s winter coat is called ermine (also a winter name for the animal itself), much beloved by kings and nobles who wore it on their robes to signify purity and high status.

The colour change is controlled by a pituitary gland in the animal which reacts to temperature and day length.

Twelve years ago the priory’s stoats became famous when they starred in a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. They also featured in the landmark Life of Mammals television series.

Another camera crew has been back this year to make a new film about their antics amongst the ancient ruins, set to be broadcast next Autumn.

But the Met Office prefers to trust in science and their radar screens. The stoats may be turning, but forecasters don't believe a white Christmas - apart from a hard frost - is on the cards.

A spokesman said: 'It looks as though high pressure will be firmly dominating at the moment. That would suggest an overnight fog and frost on Christmas Day, but that's about it.

'We might see some showers around the east coast, but there's a low probability of snow at the moment.'

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