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Artist Uncovers the Secret Love Life of a Weasel
Weasel Watch | A Story that Inspired my Paintings
I’ve followed the intimate lives of a family of weasels in my garden since 2015 and my research includes new insights into the courtship behaviour of these tiny predators.
Weasels are so small and secretive it is difficult to study their behaviour. Until now, population counts have been largely conducted from specimens trapped by gamekeepers whilst behavioural studies were mainly based on captive animals. As a result, my photographic and video studies have become an invaluable resource for scientists.
Weasels have a reputation for being brutal
Despite the limited research into their nature, weasels figure large in the human psyche. Their reputation for savagery has even made it into our language: the very word ‘weasel’ means untrustworthy or conniving! And this aggressive nature is said to even extend to the way that wild weasels behave towards one another.
Largely solitary animals, females have a small territory which they will guard fiercely from others of the same sex, while the larger territories of males will overlap those of several females. Their courtship consists of a loveless tryst. I witnessed this during the first year of my studies and it was shocking: the male rolled the female aggressively over in the undergrowth, whilst she spat and screeched her dissent.
But my cameras revealed that they also have a sensitive side
Until now there has been little footage of anything more intricate or sensitive, or even of interactions between males and females beyond their life as young kits from the same litter. But the footage I gathered a year into my garden research project told a different story. I have dozens of surveillance cameras hidden both inside and outside purpose-built nests to watch every move the weasels make.
Weasels under surveillance
After a few days I saw them touching noses. Soon they were spending more time together and seemed relaxed in each other’s company. Then, the moment I had been waiting for: these two tiny predators were curled up inside one of my underground nest boxes, in loved-up bliss. It was sweet to watch them lovingly grooming one another and hear them chittering affectionately on the hidden microphones.
The two were inseparable – in stark contrast with everything I had ever read about the brutal courtship of weasels and even what I had observed the previous year between Two Spot Jnr’s mother and his aggressive father.
Were these weasels in love?
I decided to call this new female Teasel after the way she teased and pestered her mate. She was the one who made all the advances, mounting and mock-mating Two Spots Jnr as he dozed. She seemed to be trying to stir him into action. It had the desired effect, but he was a young and inexperienced weasel. His first attempts didn’t seem to be going to plan, much to her frustration. To his credit he kept on trying and I hoped that one of these couplings would be successful.
A change of mood
But then the atmosphere between Two Spots Jnr and Teasel changed. Two Spots Jnr seemed to experience a surge of testosterone. His testicles grew huge, purple and so swollen he could barely hold his tail down. He had had enough of her. He attacked poor Teasel and evicted her from their underground nest. She tried to return a few days later and he attacked her again.
Despite this sudden change, I was hopeful that having seen all the mating inside the nesting box Teasel was pregnant and I held my breath for late May when I hoped she would give birth to kits inside one of the nesting chambers rigged with cameras.
But there was no sign that she was going to have kits. She was slim and lithe and very different from the weasel pregnancy I had observed the previous year with Two Spot Jnr’s mother, who couldn’t make it in and out of the entrance holes to my boxes due to an expanding girth.
A new male appears
I wondered how this could be, considering how much time Two Spots Jnr and Teasel had spent mating. But then on the very day that I had calculated that Teasel was supposed to give birth, a new male appeared on the scene. He was much bigger than Two Spots Jnr, with pale fur that was beginning to moult around the shoulders. I called him Caramac.
The first time I saw him he was already inside the nest box. He blocked Teasel in the entrance tunnel and forced her back inside. I watched the TV monitors as they relayed live images from the hidden cameras as he cornered her in the box, sunk his teeth into the scruff of her neck and proceeded to mate her for more than two hours in a protracted and violent coupling. This was much more aggressive that the tender approach of Two Spots Jnr!
The science behind weasel reproduction
Scientific research has shown that weasels are induced ovulators – the act of mating stimulates the release of eggs from the ovary. Within weeks Teasel’s belly had swollen. Normally so slender, she looked like a rope with a knot in it.
Weasels are fast and reactive breeders, producing two litters a year if vole numbers are high. They become sexually mature when they are just three months old and can breed in their first year, if the conditions are favourable. Pregnancy lasts just 36 days and they give birth to a litter of five to eight, blind, hairless and helpless young.
These observations add to growing research
As I waited for Teasel’s pregnancy to come to term, I wondered about my observations of her love affair with Two Spots Jnr and how nothing had come of it. It seems to me their relationship was all emotion and little action. Looking back their courtship was too tame and their mating too gentle to result in pregnancy.
But it was wonderful to document the interaction and to add a little more to the growing research into one of Britain’s least understood mammals.
My Weasel Paintings
My wildlife studies form the background research and inspiration for my paintings. See the weasels collection this story inspired below:
Read how I first attracted a weasel into my garden here: https://wp.me/p8r2U4-K