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Weasels and Stoats – Mustelids and Me
The Wonderful World of Weasels and Stoats
More is known about the habits of snow leopards than of weasels and stoats, so as a wildlife artist and photographer I created a haven in my garden in order to capture their magical, brutal lives. Here’s what I found….
Photograph: Weasel among pink saxifrage
Untrustworthy, sly and vicious: the negative characteristics of weasels and stoats can be traced back to ancient times. Back then these tiny carnivores were attributed with evil powers and even today they are despised by many.More is known about the habits of a snow leopard than that of a weasel and there have been more documentaries dedicated to the tiger than the stoat. This is surprising since they inhabit every continent, except Antarctica.This is due to their secretive nature, their size and their speed. Both are tiny. A female stoat measures just 19cm whilst a female weasel can fit through a wedding ring. Both are fast: a flash of chestnut-brown is the most people see.
As a young farmer’s son growing up in rural Yorkshire, I learnt from gamekeepers that they were vermin.Yet, their reputation for brutality impressed me. I’d seen stoats rolling pheasant eggs down a track and catching rabbits six times their size. I learnt that gram for gram they are stronger than a lion.Once, I came across stoat kits. Their mother rushed at me, hissing and spitting. She displayed remarkable tenacity considering her size.
I made it my mission to get inside their secret world
I have made it my mission as a professional wildlife artist and photographer to get inside their secret world. I set up a complex network of surveillance cameras that criss-cross my garden and a collection of tailor-made nesting chambers and feeding boxes. I’ve even built an underground tunnel so I can reach a hide at the bottom of my garden without being detected. Over five years I’ve filmed three generations of stoats and two generations of weasels. It all started when my wife burst in on me just as I was lowering myself into a hot bath. She had spotted a family of stoats playing in the garden. I rushed downstairs, gathering up my tripod and camera, wearing nothing but my towel.
Stoats bounced in and out of long waving grasses. Counting them was difficult, but I guessed there were at least six, including five kits. Stoats are adept at escaping scrutiny, but I hoped they would be attracted by a free meal. That evening, I put out a dead hare that I had found on the road and hoped they would take the bait.The next morning I saw a stoat tucking in and encouraged them to stay. I built a ‘stoat city’ full of places to eat, live and play, so that I could film and study their entire lives.
Their agility surprised me as did their ultimate trick: turning white in winter
Their agility surprised me. Their long, slim bodies can manoeuvre through complex underground burrows and through thorny hedgerows in search of food. I built a stoat-sized maze to see how they managed complex challenges. I was taken aback by how quickly they negotiated the route through tight u-bends. At Christmas I witnessed the stoat’s ultimate trick: turning white in winter. My cameras recorded ‘Bandita.’ Her coat was perfectly camouflaged against the snow, all except for a mask of brown around her eyes. This transformation is determined by genetics and triggered by cold temperatures and reduced daylight hours.
Barely six months into the project, a visitor claimed to have spotted a baby stoat outside my art gallery. I wondered if it was the stoat’s diminutive cousin, the weasel, as the two are often confused. I spotted the female weasel myself the next day. She was breathtakingly small at just 15cm. Now I had an opportunity to study two of the world’s most secretive carnivores as they went about their daily business on my doorstep.
I turned my back garden into a ‘weasel town’, dotted with wooden boxes equipped with the latest surveillance technology. I baited them with dead mice and voles. Weasels and stoats are rival relatives. A stoat will kill a weasel given the chance. I hoped there was enough distance between the two. I made the entrance holes to the weasel’s living quarters no bigger than 32mm – too small for a stoat to break in and enter.
A male weasel appeared on the scene – double the female’s weight and heavy-set
Photograph: Filming weasels with surveillance Cameras
Over time, the female weasel settled into the garden. But then a male appeared on the scene. He was double her weight and heavy set.The relationship between them was tense: whenever he appeared, she fled. Just in case their liaison led to kits, I built a new chamber specifically for her to nest in. I hoped to be the first person in the world to film inside a wild weasel nest. Males have a reputation for brutality when it comes to mating and in late April I saw the horror of their pitiless courtship. The male chased her through the shrubbery and rolled her over. She escaped his grasp and scrambled on top of a small bush squeaking, hissing and spitting in fury. The male grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and carried her off out of sight.Their behaviour confirmed the notion that there is no love lost between weasel mates. Yet, the following year I filmed a second pair curled up together inside a nest box, lovingly cooing and preening, although the coupling didn’t result in kits. Perhaps, brutality is an evil necessity.
The female weasel carried the kits into my nesting chamber and the cameras started rolling
After a three-day absence, I was relieved to spot the female arranging dry grasses and leaves into a neat dome inside my nesting chamber and settling down to sleep.As the weeks passed the female’s girth grew so wide she could no longer fit into her man-made home. She eventually gave birth under my shed where, disappointingly, I couldn’t film. A week later she carried her seven 6-day-old kits back into my nesting chamber by the scruff of their necks and my cameras started rolling. Each kit was an inch long, blind and hairless. They squirmed in a writhing pile of pink towards a mouse that their mother brought in, showing an impressively early taste for blood.
Weasels need to be tough to survive, so they learn to kill at a young age. At 48 days old the female took the kits on their first ever outing: to hunt.The kits followed their mother’s chittering call, moving nose to tail, as if they were one animal into the meadow beyond my garden. I ran towards a squealing call of distress. I parted the tall grasses to see a weasel kit grappling a young rat. The rat had its jaws around the weasel’s face. But the weasel kit wrapped its long body around the rat and delivered a single deadly bite to the back of its neck. Its first foray had been a success.
One day I heard an ear-splitting screech. I saw the adult female weasel wrestling a stoat. Suddenly there was an appalling smell. Weasels are much like skunks: they let off a stink bomb in defence. She reappeared a few days later sporting a serious gash on her chin. In late August she disappeared completely. I expect the stoat was to blame. Luckily the kits, of which five were male and two were female, were reaching independence. They survived and a month later all but one dispersed.
I’ve become known as a ‘weasel whisperer’
Weasels and stoats continue to visit the different sections of my garden and I continue to follow their every move. I have filmed more than 30 stoats and 13 weasels now. I recognise each by the markings on their faces and chests. My understanding of their behaviour is so deep I have become known in wildlife circles as the ‘weasel whisperer’.
Author: Robert E Fuller