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Artist’s 5-year Study into Secret Lives of Garden Stoats
An intensive five-year art study into the secret world of stoats
For the last five years, I have studied six generations of a remarkable stoat dynasty and my discoveries are now informing film-makers and scientists about the behaviour of these little known mammals.
A stoat scampers across the decking outside my studio and pauses at the patio door. She stands on her hind legs to press a delicate five-digit paw against the glass. Our eyes connect momentarily. I know this wild individual well. Her name is Bandita and her portrait is currently on my easel, awaiting the final touches before it goes on show at a new exhibition in my gallery on Saturday June 15th .
As Bandita slips away, I follow her movements via a bank of monitors next to my easel. These relay live footage from 20 locations across my three-acre garden, keeping track as she dashes from camera to camera. On the final screen, she enters a nest and I watch her coil into a perfect circle and drop instantly off to sleep.
Stoat art study: How it all began
It was a chance sighting of a stoat in my garden that sparked my growing obsession with these marvellous mustelids. I had been about to climb into a hot bath when my wife had called out that she could see stoats in the garden. I rushed downstairs with just a towel slung around me to see at least six of them bouncing in and out of long waving grasses. I decided I needed a closer look and so began a long process of encouraging this stoat family to stay in the garden.
Stoat art study: Capturing the infamous war dance
A year later, I spotted an adult stoat bouncing on cabbage netting strung across my vegetable patch. From this moment on I stepped up my surveillance. Essentially I hoped to capture the fabled stoat ‘war dance’ – in which stoats are said to mesmerise their prey before delivering a killer bite to the neck – on film. There wasn’t time to fetch my camera and so I watched transfixed as this female ran, jumped, twisted and spun like a turbo-driven thunder-ball in a series of seemingly impossible manoeuvres.
Stoat Art Study Reveals Stoats & Weasels Are Dangerous Enemies
The next time I glimpsed this stoat was less savoury. I heard an ear-piercing screech in the garden and rushed towards the sound to discover a whirling ball of fur. Two forms emerged and I realised that this stoat was viciously biting a weasel. They broke apart and the weasel staggered away with a nasty gash under its jaw. I had read that stoats kill weasels to eliminate competition for food, now I had seen it with my own eyes. I was shaken to the core, yet impressed by her power. I wanted to learn more.
Stoat art study: identifying different stoats
A stoat is a lithe mammal, as thin and as long as a cucumber. Three times bigger than a weasel, it is distinguishable by its tail, which looks like a paintbrush that has been dipped in black paint. This one had a faint brown moustache-line under just one side of her nose, but her muzzle was pristine white. I nick-named her ‘White Muzzle’.
Stoat art study: setting up a network of cameras to record their movements
In order to follow ‘White Muzzle’ more closely, I set up a complex network of cameras, turning my garden into a veritable ‘stoat city’ filled with places to live, feed and thrive.
To my delight, she started to visit with increasing confidence, relishing the bait that I put out. However, the spoils of her own hunting expeditions made up the bulk of her diet. According to experts, stoats need to consume 20 percent of their body weight each day. I suspect they need more, especially during a cold snap. Stoats are disadvantaged by their elongated body and use up considerable resources in the struggle to maintain an even body temperature.
Stoat art study: the ferocity of a stoat on the hunt
Thankfully, stoats are formidable predators: rabbits, nestlings, song birds, small rodents, rats and birds’ eggs satisfy a voracious appetite. Once, White Muzzle took on a fierce grey squirrel, twisting and turning with mind-blowing speed to avoid being bitten. She got the upper hand, sinking her sharp teeth into its neck, with deadly effect.
She was a persistent hunter too. I watched as she raided a nest of six baby rabbits, stealing one at a time. On each return trip, White Muzzle was attacked by the adult female rabbit. This mother was seven times her size and primed to chase, kick and roll her. Yet, White Muzzle was undeterred and quickly despatched the lot. Afterwards, I couldn’t resist mimicking the rabbit’s squeal and, without a moment’s hesitation, this fearless stoat approached, coming within six inches of my boot.
Stoat art study: building a stoat habitat in my garden
When I saw White Muzzle cross the garden flanked by two nearly mature kits I set about building a nesting chamber rigged with cameras in the hope she would breed again the following year. Stoats have an average litter of eight kits and can have up to 13. I wanted to be the first to capture footage of a stoat rearing young in the wild.
And so it was very exciting when the cameras first picked her up in the newly built nest! She teased the dry grass and moss bedding I’d provided gently over her body and delicately tucked herself in. Only her head remained visible.
Stoat art study: stoat courtship is far from loving
Shortly afterwards I spotted two males on the scene, doubtless drawn in by White Muzzle’s scent and the easy food source. Prime territories, which will commonly overlap those of several females, spark vicious power struggles between males. Having seen off his rival, the younger male was caught on camera looking at home in White Muzzle’s nest. Yet, it was far from happy families: relations between males and females are largely hostile. When White Muzzle entered the nest, he lunged to bite her face and his tail fizzed out a signal of annoyance. She slunk out, emitting a high-pitched call akin to a trapped bird, never recorded before in the wild. Thankfully for both White Muzzle, and my frazzled nerves, he later disappeared.
Stoat art study: following six generations reveals stoat lineage
By late March, I was thrilled to see that White Muzzle had a well-rounded belly. But there was no knowing who could claim paternity. Females are not loyal to one partner and during the period that they are receptive can mate with several different suitors. Surprisingly, each litter of kits may, therefore, have more than one father.
Stoat art study: delayed implantation
Young are born some 10 months later by a process known as delayed implantation. This reproductive strategy keeps embryos in a state of dormancy during winter when food is scarce and allows stoats to synchronise the birth of their young with times of plenty.
Stoat art study: finding a nest to give birth in
I watched inside the nest as White Muzzle gathered up a ball of bedding with her paws, tucked it under her chin and carried it out backwards. Her actions signalled intent to give birth off camera. When she returned to the nest to collect more, I timed her trip with my wristwatch. Her secret birth site was under 30 seconds away. That night, I couldn’t resist taking a look. A tell-tale trail of dry grasses led to a spot directly underneath my nesting chamber – frustratingly, out of sight of the camera!
A week later I noticed her feeding, hungrily. Her body was now light-bulb shaped, intimating the kits were engaged. She spun round, unsettled, licking her back end. Her tail was wet and I suspected that her waters had broken. The she disappeared and didn’t see her for two days. When she resurfaced, she was sporting a slimmer physique. I couldn’t wait to see the kits.
Stoat art study: the kits are born
A long three weeks later, I saw White Muzzle on camera scrabbling at the dusty floor of the nest. She dashed around, chittering, her tail fizzed. I gasped as a small head appeared at the entrance: it was the first kit. White Muzzle rolled on her back encouraging the kit to play. As she turned to get up, her tail swept across the floor and the kit instinctively chased it, still wobbly on its feet. A second kit appeared and then a third. White Muzzle groomed them in turn. They were perfect mini-versions of their mother – I was entranced.
Suddenly, the nest exploded into life. An incalculable mass of writhing, romping kits filled the frame. Only when they settled down to suckle did I manage to count eight individuals: six males and two females.
Stoat art study: watching the kits explore the garden
Two kits stood out: ‘Stanley’ was always up to mischief. He would race on top of the kits as they slept, pouncing and pulling at their tails. ‘Tash’ was a tiny, feisty female named for her brown moustache. She would play-fight with much larger males and even pulled the foam wind-muff off the hidden microphone! White Muzzle took the kits on their first outdoor adventure when they were just four weeks old. She led them to the feeding box, carrying stragglers in her mouth. Her route took them past their purpose-built pond.
Stoat art study: discovering that stoat kits can swim
This was the kits’ first encounter with water: one got its feet wet and dashed away in fright. But Stanley, inevitably, fell in head-first followed by his sibling. Thankfully, stoats are natural swimmers and they floated on the surface like ping-pong balls. The air trapped in their thick, soft fur made them completely buoyant!
Stoat art study: a female moves her kits regularly
One night, while I was putting out food for her growing family, White Muzzle rushed from the nest entrance with a loud ‘krick-krick-hiss’. As I retreated, she ran alongside me, hissing and spitting at me from under the cover of the hedge.
She moved the kits the following day. Mothers will readily relocate to a new nesting site if they sense impending danger. White Muzzle grabbed the first kit by the scruff of its neck. The youngster immediately went limp: it was easier to transport this way. She quickly returned to collect the next one. I watched as she cached the last kit in a gabion wall on my garden’s boundary, then I withdrew as she approached me, hissing as she came.
She moved her kits five more times, eventually returning to my man-made nest when the kits were 12 weeks old. Some of the males were now as big as their mother, making it hard to tell who was who. But White Muzzle’s back was ginger and her underbelly yellowish, while the kits were duller with pure-white underparts.
Stoat art study: using field skills to locate stoats in my garden
I learnt to locate the family by listening to the sounds of the robins, dunnocks, tits and sparrows, that all ‘alarm call’ when stoats are spotted. But, the most reliable whistle-blower is the blackbird. It matches different predators to different calls. If a ground predator is close by, it emits a soft ‘plink’ from a high perch. If it has a visual too it will utter a double ‘plink’, whilst eye-balling the predator and repeatedly flicking its wings down.
Stoat art study: stoat kits at play
The pond was a big hit with the kits. They spent their days diving in like mini-otters. But this young stoat bliss wasn’t going to last forever. At 14 weeks old, their play-fights became bitter power struggles. One day I watched in horror as two kits locked together in combat and tumbled into the pond as a writhing ball. Later, Stanley and Tash limped into the nest, sporting unspeakable neck injuries.
Stoat study: dispersing to find new territory
At the same time, White Muzzle started to evict her kits from her territory. Once kits are mature, the female will drive her youngsters out to find their own territories, often using brute force. Surprisingly, the two most powerful males were the first to be kicked out. I had expected them to attempt a takeover since my garden is a prime territory.
Stanley and Tash lurked nervously in their mother’s territory until late autumn and the smallest male named Cough-ee, held on before disappearing for good the following spring. White Muzzle’s reign lasted a further eighteen months during which she bore another healthy litter. But then she vanished too, never to return.
Stoat art study: discovering an ermine in the garden
So, when a white stoat appeared in my garden last December, it was the best Christmas present ever. At first, I thought this ermine was a new character. I named her Bandita after the brown mask of fur that remained around her eyes. By mid-March, her body returned to its characteristic chestnut-brown and I instantly recognised her. This was ‘Tash,’ White Muzzle’s feisty two-year-old daughter and it soon became obvious that Tash, now Bandita, was pregnant.
The video below tells part of the story of the stoats living in my garden:
Click on image to play
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