STOATS are among the most intriguing of our wild animals. There is a good deal of mystique about them, such as their supposed ability to hypnotise rabbits into fatal submission and the legend that they sometimes hunt in packs.

Added to this is their ability to turn white during the winter months. I have never seen a completely white stoat although on one occasion, high in the Yorkshire Dales, I came across one whose fur was patchy.

Its back was mainly brown, but it had one or two patches of white upon it and, of course, the tip of its tail remained black.

Even if a stoat turns completely white, the tip of its tail will always be black. But, in any case, a stoat has a good deal of white upon it throughout the year. Its underparts, including its breast, are always white.

The sighting of a white stoat is something of a rarity, even on the higher ground of this region. As one travels further north, however, so the likelihood of seeing a white stoat increases.

It appears that the change in colour is due to a combination of reducing temperatures and decreasing light during the late autumn and winter months.

It can happen within a very short time, a matter of two or three days on occasions, and its purpose is to form a type of camouflage against a background of snow.

I have heard of white stoats being embarrassed by a sudden thaw and rolling in mud to discolour their coats, but perhaps this is a rural myth.

A stoat in its white winter coat is also known as an ermine and, down the centuries, this has been considered a valuable part of the fur industry.

There has always been a considerable trade in ermine, the fur being imported from northern countries such as Norway, Sweden, Russia and Siberia.

In this country, it was used as the trimming on the robes of the judiciary and aristocracy - those white ermine edges can be identified by their black spots. They are the tails of the humble stoat although, in modern times, artificial furs are used.

At its peak, the fur industry was widespread and lucrative, with Canada being considered one of the major producers due to its population of many species of fur-bearing animals.

As the trade expanded, however, the capture of wild animals was superceded by fur farming. Across America and into Alaska, many fur farms were established, with some specialising in animals like foxes, rabbits, mink and even badgers.

This brings me to an interesting query from a correspondent who lives in Wensleydale. He understands that there used to be a corral near Ladyhill in Upper Wensleydale where captive stoats were bred specifically to provide ermine, and he asks if I have any knowledge of this.

I have to say I have no personal knowledge and none of my sources makes any reference to this, but if such an establishment existed then I am sure someone will inform me.

This leads to another question - do stoats in the Yorkshire Dales turn snow white in winter?

Years ago, there were reports of ermine stoats being seen high in Swaledale as well as the Cumbrian, Durham and Northumberland hills.

But now? Few, if any, ermine seem to occupy the lower ground and, likewise, few stoats even in our northern hills now seem to turn white, although the tendency to milder winters might account for this.

Some 30 years ago, I read of a white stoat in the Guisborough area and another in Yorkshire's Eskdale around the same time, although the latter could have been an albino. If there was an ermine farm in Wensleydale, therefore, it must have relied heavily upon very cold and dark winters.

In discussing stoats, there is always the problem of distinguishing stoats from their cousins, the weasels. In very simple terms, weasels are the wee ones, stoats are the stouter.

The adult stoat is considerably larger than an adult weasel and, of course, the stoat has that distinctive black tip to its tail. An adult male stoat is about ten inches (25cm) long, with his tail adding a further three inches (76mm) to his length. The female is smaller, but she also sports that black tail tip.

Male weasels, whose colouring is very similar to the stoat, (except they do not turn white in winter nor do they have the black tail tip) are only some eight inches (20cm) long with a two-inch (50mm) tail, the females being slightly smaller.

Both these animals belong to the weasel family, which includes the wonderful pine marten, the polecat, the mink, the ferret and the otter. All are distinguished by long slender bodies and rather short legs, but all are highly efficient hunters.

So do stoats or weasels hunt in packs? What happens is that the six or so young of each animal remain with their parents for some weeks, and they do hunt and play together. This has given rise to the pack theory. And I have heard of rabbits being literally frozen in terror at the sight of a stoat.

When I closed the blinds at the front of our house the other evening, I found a butterfly at rest upon one of the partitions. It was sleeping with its wings folded and I thought it had decided to hibernate in our front room.

I was happy to leave it there and so, the following morning when I re-opened them, I was not surprised to see it in that same sleeping position. It remained there throughout the day and was still there at night when I closed the blinds.

Next morning, though, it had gone. I searched the room, looked in the folds of the curtains, behind bookcases, under the furniture and everywhere I could think of, but there was no sign of our visitor.

But then, at coffee time this morning while I had a break in writing my notes about ermine, I spotted our butterfly. It was resting on the carpet inside the patio doors, enjoying the November sunshine.

I think the brilliance of that sunshine, and the heat it generated by shining through the double-glazing, roused our sleeping butterfly, wherever it had been.

It had its wings spread wide open, as if absorbing the energy provided by the sun. It was a small tortoiseshell, a very common sight throughout the whole of England in the summer months. It can be seen around buddleias and ice-plant flowers, or near nettle beds. It lays its eggs on the underside of stinging nettle leaves and in summer will sometimes sleep on the underside of a nettle leaf.

At my approach, it snapped into action and began to flutter against the windows, trying to reach the sunshine outdoors, so I performed my rescue operation by catching it and releasing it into the surprisingly warm and sunny November day. I knew it would soon find another place to rest for the winter. Small tortoiseshells are regular visitors to our houses and out-buildings as they look for somewhere to hibernate.

In fact, they can start seeking suitable places as early as August and prefer the undersides of shelves or ledges or the folds of curtains, but will feel equally at home in a dry shed or garage.

They can survive the entire winter in this way before becoming active again during the spring.

I have come across a wonderful story about an old character who used to live at Thornton Rust near Aysgarth in Wensleydale, a place which Edmund Bogg describes as a village resting on a shelf!

The tale features John Chapman, a former master of Wensleydale Hounds, who died at Thornton in 1878, aged 85. It seems he was known as a man of iron constitution, one of his feats being to spend an entire day hunting with otter hounds and wading waist-deep in the river and then not changing his clothes afterwards!

He seemed happy to spend his time in soaking wet, river-stained clothes and the story goes on to say that whenever he felt an attack of lumbago coming on, he would walk down to the river and wade up and down for 20 minutes with the water up to his waist. He reckoned this cured his aches and pains!

On another occasion, he is said to have sat out in the garden in pouring rain at the age of 82, allowing the rain to soak his clothes and reach his skin, believing this softened his skin and did him a lot of good. He is also said to have spent several days hunting, unaware that he had two or three broken ribs. They don't breed 'em like that nowadays!