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Wild Weasels in my Garden: PART I

Although weasels are common enough mammals it is rare to get more than a fleeting glimpse of one before it disappears into the undergrowth.I have followed the secret behaviour of these tiny predators through a number of cameras hidden in my garden for over a year. I have watched a female bringing up a litter of 7 kits, her battle for survival with a local stoat which sees her as a competitor and appears to actively hunt weasels.  I even saw their aggressive mating ritual – right outside my kitchen window. This was incredible. The male literally grabbed the female and
when, after a short scuffle, she curled up into a submissive ball, he picked her and up carried her off by the scruff of her neck to mate.
I began watching the female in March 2015, after Lara, who works in my gallery, came rushing to find me claiming she had spotted a baby stoat in the garden. Weasels are often mistaken for stoats. But as they are much smaller and, as it was too early for stoat kits, I knew by her description that she must have actually seen a weasel. A few days later I saw the weasel for myself from my studio window, which overlooks the same patch of garden.
I dashed downstairs, grabbed my camera and took my first ever photographs of a weasel from the kitchen window. Looking back through these photographs, I could tell the weasel was a female since she had very delicate features. I was surprised how small she was: just over twice the size of a wood mouse. I decided I needed to get her to feed regularly in the garden so that I could study her closely for a new painting.
I set about designing four ‘weasel feeders’, special wooden boxes fitted with fine mesh floors and Perspex sliding roofs. I drilled 32mm entrance holes into the sides, big enough for a weasel to get in and out but, importantly, too small for a stoat or rat. I positioned each box in different locations in my back garden, where I had seen the weasel hunting, and baited them with dead mice or voles every day. Sometimes I dragged the bait over the ground in front of the box to leave a scent trail.
After 10 days of repeating this process I’d had no joy and was starting to get disheartened. Then one morning I heard the birds in the garden calling out in alarm. Interestingly their calls were much more subtle then when a sparrowhawk is on the scene. As I looked out of the window I could see a weasel going from feeder to feeder diligently taking each rodent.  Success! I reached for my camera and quickly snapped it as it made off down the path. I was off to a good start.
 Over the next few weeks, the weasel started to come most days. But its raids were so quick I often missed its visits. I decided to reduce the number of feeding boxes down to one. With just one box to keep an eye on I would have a much better chance of getting clear sightings.
I fitted the box with a tiny camera so that I could see inside via a TV screen in my studio and a motion sensor with an alarm, which would alert me when it arrived.Then I artfully placed tree roots in front of this entrance so that any photographs I took would make it look as though the weasel was emerging from a natural setting. It took a few days to get the weasel to return to this adapted feeder, but one morning she dashed up through the roots and into the box. I watched on my TV monitor as she grabbed the mouse inside. I had tied down the bait with mini cable ties, so that it would slow the weasel down and give me chance to grab my camera.

I had a fascinating month watching the female weasel. Then one day a male arrived and went into the feeding box. He was much bigger and stockier than the female. He became a regular visitor too, although the relationship between them was very tense. But, spurred on by the possibility that this could be a mate for her, I headed off to the workshop to finish off a nesting chamber I had already started to build.

I made this out of a hollow hawthorn log and again hid a camera in it. It had a six inch hollow middle, which was the perfect size for such a small mammal. I put the whole thing into a small plastic bin and fixed three 32mm pipes leading in to it. I hoped the pipe would be too small for the larger male to get down. Inside I put two voles’ nests made from dead grass and leaves to add extra scent. The pipes smelt of new plastic so I poured soil and sand through it before pulling a dead vole on a bit of string through too for good measure. From the outside it looked a bit like a blue Dalek. I buried it in its entirety in the back garden. Then each day I tied a dead mouse with a cable tie onto a dead grass stem and threaded it about six inches down the pipes to attract the female weasel into the nest. Then one day in late April the female came to the feeding box as usual. She was followed by the male, which ran in to the tree roots and flushed her out.
 She fled, but she wasn’t quick enough. The male caught her and rolled her over into a conifer. She was squeaking, hissing and spitting in aggression.  As she rolled on to her back the bush was shaking and I got fleeting glimpses of weasels bobbing up and then disappearing behind the foliage. I ran upstairs to get a better view. The female scrambled on top of a small shrub and leapt onto the path. But she wasn’t quick enough. The male grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and carried her off out of sight.  I didn’t see either weasel for the next three days which was unusual. I was worried that the male had chased her away, but I hoped that they were just mating. I was pleased to see her back one evening and even more pleased to see her investigating her new, bespoke, nesting chamber.

She checked every nook and cranny. It was like watching Location, Location, Location. Within minutes, she had decided she liked it and fetched one of the dead mice I had pushed down the pipe. She pulled this inside with her. Then, incredibly, she set about neatly building a nest out of the old vole nest that I had put in earlier. She soon built a dome structure out of dry grasses and leaves and pulled her mouse into it. She ate some of her mouse and then the nest fell quiet as she fell asleep.

As the weeks passed I noticed that she was getting plump. Typically the gestation period for a weasel is 35 days. But she now couldn’t fit down the pipe into the nesting chamber and instead she began sleeping and making a nest in the feeding box. But the male could fit into this too. And for two nights just before she was due to give birth, he slept in it himself. It was clear she wouldn’t give birth there now and shortly afterwards she gave birth to kits in a hole in the wall of my back shed.

 

As the female weasel ran back and forth from her nest in my back shed to the feeding box in my back garden, I wondered if I could channel her movements in some way. I watched her going backwards and forwards from my kitchen window and then decided I would build a mini dry stone wall with a weasel sized hole in, so I could capture her running through from either side. I built it during the day, and decided to put up cameras when the female had got used to using this new route. She started using it straight away. I think she enjoyed the security of having a safe place to hide in, so that she wasn’t so exposed. The following day, I was giving a talk to a large group in my gallery and opened the door in my studio where I have a deck overlooking my back garden. The nesting chambers and feed boxes are all here and I’ve nicknamed the back garden ‘weasel town’.

 

Some of my customers walked out on to the deck to look at the garden and the spectacular view of the Yorkshire Wolds. They were pointing at the path and I went outside to see the weasel running along the path looking a bit distressed. I asked the customers about what they had seen and they told me that they had seen the weasel running back and forth with baby mice in its mouth. They went on to tell me that it had gone towards the nesting chamber, next to the back wall of my living room. I knew straightway that it wasn’t baby mice that she was carrying but six day old kits! I got everyone inside quickly so that the weasel could move her kits in peace. We watched from a live camera inside my studio instead.

She had brought seven kits into the nesting chamber one at a time. She was now slim enough to fit into it again. The kits were just over one inch long. They were blind and hairless. They couldn’t walk but could squirm and wriggle about. Once the last of the kits was brought into this safe haven, the female scurried out to the feeding box to retrieve a dead mouse. She dragged it into the nesting chamber with the kits. And I was amazed to see how the seemingly helpless kits quickly wriggled towards this new food source and started to suck on it. Who would have thought that such young creatures would already have the taste for meat at such an early stage? I was slightly disappointed that I hadn’t captured any footage of her moving the kits, I hadn’t yet put the cameras either side of the mini dry stone wall, although I was beyond excited that they had chosen to nest in my ‘home-made’ nesting chamber with pre-installed camera.  

This young family seemed very happy in their new location, but I suspected she may move them again, so I set about making her a new nest. I placed it outside my kitchen window near the feeding box. It made out from an old elderberry trunk. I laid it on its side and fitted it with a camera and a motion sensor. I put some dead mice in the entrance hole to attract the female to it. I had positioned it between her existing nesting chamber and the feeding box so she soon found it. On 17th June she moved two of the kits into this nest. The alarm connected to the motion sensor in the elderberry trunk was ringing loudly in my kitchen, so I looked at the TV screen to see the weasel carrying a tiny kit into the new nest right in front of the camera. I opened the kitchen window to get my camera in place. She came out of the entrance and spotted me. She ran back into the old nest with the other kits. On the TV screen I watched her curl round the kits to let them suckle. She seemed to settle down with them, forgetting about the other two that she had already moved. After half an hour I went out to check on the two kits and opened a door on the elderberry log nest. The kits were inside but they were still warm, so I went back inside to wait. A few minutes later she decided to abandon this move, came out and took the two kits back with her.
But after this ‘failed’ move, I knew another was imminent. I was glued to the TV screen, which relayed live images of the nest. I even set up another TV screen outside to show me what was going on inside the nest while I was filming. The weasel moves so fast, I could miss all the action if I
wasn’t careful. I based myself at home, as I knew the move was imminent and  I didn’t want to miss it. I looked closely for any unusual behaviour patterns.
Over the next two days she continued her normal routine, collecting food from the feeding box and taking it down to feed her kits in the nesting chamber. On Saturday 20th June in the morning she took a mouse into the hollow log, which acts as a ‘front porch’. Then a few minutes later she took the mouse away and stashed it elsewhere. She then disappeared for nearly two hours. This was quite a long time to leave such young kits, certainly the longest she had left them to date, and I was getting concerned. I was relieved when she came back and let the kits suckle straightaway.
A customer wanted to speak to me in the gallery and I went through to chat to him. He asked me how my weasels were getting on and I pointed to the screen to show him the nesting chamber. At that very moment I saw the weasel pick up one of the kits by the scruff of the neck. It had started. She was moving them.

I rushed into the kitchen and activated my go pro video camera, which I had positioned outside the nest. Visitors to the gallery crowed around the screen to watch this rare event unfold. I was all fingers and thumbs and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t decide whether I should outside or not
and risk disturbing her.
I expected her to move the kits one by one to the new nest in an orderly fashion. But this was not the case. She pulled them all out at once into the front porch and then set off with one in the direction of the hedge. I took the opportunity to go into the back garden and get into position to film. My camera and tripod were already set up. I sat down and waited. She was soon back and she grabbed the kits one by one and took them the short distance to the hedge. She must have dumped them there! She was in such a rush she dropped one, but she soon picked it up again. I retreated to the back shed, where she had given birth to the kits. I waited motionlessly. I knew the weasel well and I had a hunch she was heading that way. Sure enough she appeared through the little dry stone wall that I had built for her holding a kit by the scruff of its neck and ran along the back wall of my studio. She dashed into a pile of scaffold poles still holding her 17 day old kit! She appeared out of the end of the three metre long pipe before making a final dash into the nest in the back shed, where she had given birth.  She was moving so fast I had no chance of focusing my camera on her. I knew I would really have to concentrate if I was going to get a photograph of this amazing behaviour.
At this stage I wasn’t sure how many of the kits she had moved already. But she came back out to get another. While she was away I shuffled into a better position. I crouched down on the step leading into the back shed and trained my camera on the hole in the dry stone wall. There was a glimmer of light coming through from the other side of the hole. When it went completely dark I knew she was on her way. Split seconds later she was in the entrance hole, where she stopped for a mili-second – just enough time to rattle off a few shots. She repeated this process twice more. So I counted up that would make four kits so far. But she was moving so fast that it was virtually impossible to get a sharp photograph -video would be the only way that I could capture this behaviour. So the next time she was in the nest I ran to get my go pro camera. When I returned, I stood back and I watched as she came out to get another kit. I seized the moment and quickly put the go pro camera into position right outside the hole in the dry stone wall. I pressed record, then sat back down to wait. This time, when she returned with the fifth kit, the
camera was in her path and she paused to glance at it for a few seconds – just long enough to give me a chance to get some photographs properly in focus. She went into the nest for a few minutes and I was beginning to think that this episode was over, but she soon came out. I suspect she was checking to see if she had left any kits behind. Next she went to the feeding box to collect a mouse to feed her family in their new home. It had been an action packed hour!

It was a long wait before I saw the kits again – although I still saw the female regularly. She came to feed at the specially designed feeding box which I had now put up in a branch 1 metre off the ground. I did this so I could get some good action shots of her running up and down the 1.5 metre long branch. The problem was she was just so quick – it was like trying to capture a shot of a flying bird, not a mammal.

She was getting quite used to be by now and she didn’t mind my presence in the back garden. I had some great encounters with her as she travelled from the feeding box back to her nesting site. I could just sit one metre away from the route I knew she would take and she would storm past me with a mouse for her kits in her mouth. I didn’t even need to set up a hide or wear camouflage clothing!
My elaborate set up with the mini dry stone wall was working well, but the problem was she was impossibly quick and it was difficult to get a photograph of her. It really was split second stuff. So I positioned another TV monitor outside that I could watch as I sat waiting for her to appear. This could relay live images of her in the feeding box. This would show me when she was leaving the feeding box and give me chance to get ready for her coming through the dry stone wall. I even positioned a large mirror on the other side of the dry stone wall so I could see her reflection as she approached along the garden path and then going into the far side of the dry stone wall. Often she would dash straight past me and it was very difficult to get a good shot, but on other occasions she would pause for  a fraction of a second – just long enough to rattle off a few shots. When she appeared out of the dry stone wall she would head straight for a pile of scaffold poles that were lying by the side of the wall of my studio. She would run inside the poles and I could hear her claws scratching against the metal. As she emerged she would look up at me – and I would need to sit very still – and then she would scuttle round the corner and into her nest in the back shed to feed her kits. I had positioned a trail cam directly outside the entrance hole to the dry stone wall. But even though it was just 50cm away it struggled to cope with the sheer speed of the weasel and it rarely activated the motion sensor. It was 6th July and now been four and a half weeks since the kits were born and I was expecting to see the kits any day now. Late one evening I decided to check the trail cam. It had captured a few shots of a weasel, but I was then surprised to see a video of a stoat coming out of the nest. The trail cam had recorded the footage at 6.50am. I wondered if this could be the end of my weasel kits. Ten seconds later the trail cam had recorded the female appearing out of the entrance to the nest, checking to see if the stoat had gone. I didn’t know if the much smaller weasel had seen this large predator off and managed to save her kits or not. The next video was at lunch time of a kit peering out of the hole.
It was hard to tell at first that it was a kit – it was fully formed and as large as the female. But it’s movements were slow and clumsy in comparison to the swift dexterity of the adult which gave it away.  I was so relieved when I saw her busily taking food in to the nesting chamber the following day. It signified that the kits were alive and well and hungry! Then the trail camera captured footage of a large rat sniffing going into the entrance of the nest chamber. Rats are not really thought to be ‘hunters’ but they could easily kill a whole litter. Again, I was worried.
A week later the female didn’t take as much food as normal from the feeding box. She was only taking two mice a day – which was only sufficient to feed herself. I was worried that the stoat or the rat had been back again, as in addition to her not taking any food down to the kits I hadn’t captured any new footage of the kits appearing out of the entrance to their nest. But thankfully the following day her feeding pattern returned to normal, taking seven mice in quick succession and even a bit of rabbit too. She had obviously got lucky and managed to hunt something herself. I decided to take a look at the entrance to the nesting chamber. The back shed wall had a large pyracantha bush growing up it. I peered in to see two weasel kits playing in the thick cover.
 But the nesting chamber was very vulnerable to attack by the rat and the stoat so I decided to reduce the size of the entrance hole so that these larger predators would be unable to get in. The female rarely came to feed by night so I knew this would be the least intrusive time to do a bit of handiwork. So over three nights I cut back the pyracantha and put in three clay pipes over the holes with a 32mm reduce plate inside so nothing larger than this size could get in. Around these clay pipes, I built a drystone wall with a small waterhole to give myself a natural-looking backdrop. Two pipes lead into the nesting chamber and the third led into my back garden.
Weasels have a very strong sense of smell, and I didn’t want to alarm them with my scent. So I put chopped up rabbit and mice all over the drystone wall. I thought it would serve as the perfect distraction from the work I had done. It worked a treat. The next day I saw the kits investigating their new front door complete with waterhole. They scurried around from one hole to the next, collecting the morsels of food that I had stashed in crack and crevices in the wall. They definetly liked the improvements I had made, but the most important thing was to wait and see if the female accepted the changes.
I kept replenishing the food on the wall and was delighted to see her taking the morsels in to the new holes. I had seen her nearly every day since March – more than four months – and I would often come across her while I was out in the garden. She had built up some trust in me, and accepted the changes that I had made to her nesting chamber. I built a hide 5 metres away from the chamber and the door next to my studio so that I could watch the comings and goings of the young family of weasels. The kits were still very tentative when they were outside the nest and rarely strayed far from cover.
Then on 20th July when the kits were 48 days old there was a real change in behaviour. The female weasel decided it was time to take them on their first adventure into the great unknown. I was just walking through the kitchen when I heard the alarm of one of my sensors going off. I realised it was the sensor that I had positioned inside what I hoped would be a nest for this family of weasels in an old hollow log. The log was just outside the kitchen window. I looked at the monitor and saw that several weasel kits were already in the nest. I grabbed a camera and opened the window. The female weasel and her kits were in the entrance to this new nest. She saw the movement and quickly pulled the kits back inside the hollow log by the scruffs of their necks. Seconds later she appeared in the entrance again, looking my way. The kits seemed to think it was some sort of game and pounced on her. She made a chitting sound and two kits followed her. It was as if they were moving as one animal – nose to tail. As they bounded away I watched them dash up into the feeding box and then watched two more weasels whizzing around the garden. There seemed to be weasels everywhere! The female was taking them on a tour of their territory. After a full morning of exploration, they all headed back to their back shed nest. After lunch I sat in my hide filming the kits. It may sound unlikely but it is impossible to count them as they dash around. I saw four at once, which started to gave me a good idea of numbers. The female took five mice away from the top feeding box, but she didn’t take them back to the back shed nest so I wondered where she was taking them to. I went back to the hide to find four kits dashing in and out of the holes. The female came to the wall. I couldn’t see her but I could hear her chittering call. One by one the four kits dashed after her in the direction of the back garden. I checked through my video footage and found that in spite of being just 48 days old these four kits were already bigger than her. It seemed to me that these four were probably male weasels. I had seen some smaller kits as well – so was hoping that all seven were still alive. I didn’t see anymore weasels for the rest of the afternoon, so was starting to wonder where she had moved them to. Later that day I was out in the garden putting some food out for some wild kestrels that I have trained to come to feed on a post in my garden. I heard a squealing distress call. I ran over to the meadow area of my garden and parted the tall grasses. There was a weasel having a battle with a young rat. They were rolling and writhing about. One moment the weasel seemed to be winning, the next moment the rat appeared to have the upper hand. The rat tried biting the weasel’s face. The weasel was spinning around the rat almost like a snake. I dashed back to the house to get my camera. By the time I got back the weasel was winning the war and the rat’s squeals became subdued. The weasel had the rat by the throat and was viciously biting into it. It was making sure that rat was not just playing dead. It definitely was dead but it was still flicking and twitching.
The weasel had been so caught up in the fight, that it hadn’t noticed me stood right over it filming. But it soon dashed of into the grasses and I retreated to let it eat it’s well earned meal. As I did so I could hear another young rat being caught by one of the other weasels. The female had obviously taken the young kits on a hunting mission. What a tough first outing for these youngsters – as female rats, like most mammals, are known to fiercely defend their young. I have watched cheetah take down gazelle in Africa, but this was every bit as dramatic and a very rare sight to witness.
As the summer passed I watched with interest as the kits became more and more adventurous. I watched them playing, pouncing and fighting. There seemed to be only one female. The other 4 were male kits. I suspect the other 2 had died at some point. The males gave the female a hard time – dragging her around by the scruff of her neck. But she was feisty and gave as good she got. The female had a special bond with one of the males and they often went around together.
I attracted a new stoat to the garden, that has become a regular visitor. One day I heard an ear piercing screech from the weasel and I knew that she had been attacked by the stoat. She appeared a few days later sporting a serious gash on her chin. By mid-august she disappeared completely. I will never know what happened to her, but I strongly suspect that it was the stoat who got her in the end. Four of the males disappeared by late summer. I think they will have gone off to find their own new territories and I am currently left
with the female and male kit.

What happened next: Read my next blog here about what happens next….

 

The story of the wild weasels living in my back garden featured on BBC Springwatch in 2016. The camera crew spent a few days here at my art gallery at Thixendale.

 

 

 

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