Kate Bush and the smelly stoats

Attraction plays a powerful role in all aspects of our lives. From holding the universe together, to keeping atoms in place, to finding our long-term mate, bringing things to the same place is a fundamental facet of our lives.

I am attracted to the songs of Kate Bush. As a 10 year old, I remember seeing Wuthering Heights on Ready to Roll. As Kate would sing later, Wow! Here was a song like no other. A 19 year old, dancing (no, whirling) around a field, singing about Cathy and Heathcliff. It stayed at No 1 in New Zealand for five weeks. To a kid raised on ABBA and the Little River Band, this was a revelation.


Over the next few years I enjoyed her radio hits (like Wow, Babooshka, The Man With the Child in his Eyes, Army Dreamers). My mate Tony bought her Never for Ever album at high school to which we listened. As I left school the Hounds of Love album was released with that eponymous song (“It’s in the trees!… It’s coming”) and Running up that Road. Many at university had the album. After a year or so I decided I should get some records/cassettes and grabbed two albums The Dreaming (completely bonkers but still my favourite album with my favourite song Get Out of my House) and Lionheart.

As I started my PhD I got The Sensual World album (and finally Hounds of Love). Kate also featured prominently in my proposal to Julie! When I got my first job in 1994 and moved to Lincoln I got The Red Shoes album. The double album Aerial helped me through my busy parenting years, and 50 Words for Snow was there when my boys started heading off to university themselves. I finally picked up The Kick Inside, Kate’s first album, in 2018 when all the boys left home.

The Whole Story

Kate has been a big part of my life. She is the only artist that I can listen to over and over and not get bored with. My wife, while not a fan, has learned to live with Kate, and my boys, even less fannish, still have favourite Kate songs, like Jig of Life.

What attracts me? Maybe it is that Kate uses her voice like an instrument? Or that virtually every song is a short story based around a character? Or that she will sing about an RAF pilot’s last moments in the blitz (Lionheart), or Houdini’s death (Houdini), or how magical shoes will make you dance until you die (The Red Shoes), or getting Stephen Fry to come up with 50 Words for Snow. Maybe it is that she experiments with her songs, sounding like a blackbird calling (Aerial Tap), or a stringed instrument (Violin), or reciting the first 117 digits of pi (π). Maybe it is the complex layers of sound that are present in each song – there’s alway more to explore. Maybe it is just because I usually listen to her on my own, she has been there through all of the ups and downs of my life, and that’s enough.

The Sensual World

Anyway. There is an attraction and I continue to play her music regularly. I have even been making my way through a podcast that spends over an hour discussing each of her songs (Strange Phenomena). The only other creative figures in my life who have had this impact and longevity are the writers Tanith Lee and JRR Tolkien, and the painter Turner.

Attraction is a powerful pull on every organism. Attraction is useful for finding food, mates, conspecifics, places to be, shelter and so on. Sometimes, we can make use of this attraction. A fish is attracted to a hook by a shiny lure. Shining a light at night can attract moths to a collection point. Shaking the biscuit tin can attract our fat cat Ernie to move from her hiding place to the front door.

In New Zealand’s effort to be PredatorFree by 2050 we have to improve the effectiveness of the tools at our disposal. For crafty predators, like stoats, it can be difficult to capture them in traps or to get them to eat baits with toxins. They need to be lured into these traps or to the bait sites.


Food baits are useful but have only a limited time in field conditions before they deteriorate. There has been a lot of work investigating different types of lures from noises, to colours, to odours. Ideally, we need a lure that has a long-life, capable of still being able to lure after weeks in the field.

Species, like stoats, are usually solitary in nature, moving large distances over a few days. During breeding season, stoats have to find each other and they make the most of anal and skin glands to produce an odiferous sulphur-containing secretion that they mark in their area. Other body odours are also used by the stoat rubbing itself on different objects.

Elaine Murphy and James Ross from Lincoln University, with colleagues from Department of Conservation, examined stoat urine, faeces, and bedding from reproductively fertile stoat females to see whether stoats would be attracted to sites with these odours. In a paper published in Animals they describe how they used field and lab experiments to test these potential lures.

The Kick Inside

The lab experiments were set up so that stoats could choose between blank and lure chambers. Field set ups in Abel Tasman, Nelson Lakes, and Coromandel gave a choice in stations between stoat odours or the more usual dried rabbit meat or hen eggs.

The lab trials showed that stoats spent much more time around the stoat odours. The field trials showed that that stoats were just as, or more, likely to respond to a bait/trap as they would do to dried rabbit meat or hen eggs. There was also some suggestion that these odours would also work with ferrets and even rats.

Elaine and company are not sure at this stage about what the active chemical is that attracts stoats. Stoat secretions do appear to provide another tool with which to attract individuals to sites where they can be controlled.

There is a mystery in attraction. But at least some of this mystery is being used to help solve some conservation problems. Now there’s a topic worthy of some Kate Bush lyrics.

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