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Why I’m Wild About Stoats & Weasels
How My Art Studies Became an Obsession
Falling for the stoats & weasels in my garden
For US readers: In my blogs, a weasel refers to your ‘least weasel’ and stoat is your ‘short-tailed weasel’. For more on ID and definitions: CLICK HERE
For five years, I have followed six generations of the same stoat family and a dynamic weasel dynasty. The project began as an art study to gather reference photographs and information for my paintings, but it soon turned into a mission to understand as much as I could about these minute mustelids. My findings are now drawing interest from scientists and documentary makers. Here I set out why I’m wild about weasels and stoats and what I’ve learned so about these secretive animals.
In the beginning
I always try to really understand a species before I begin painting it and so when I spotted a family of stoats in my garden in 2014, I grabbed at the opportunity to find out more about them. After all they were right outside my house. Both stoats and weasels are deeply secretive and I knew it was going to be a challenge to watch them closely – but I love a challenge!
Spotted in the shrubbery
My garden in North Yorkshire, UK, has been planted specifically to draw wildlife and I had seen both stoats and weasels passing through the flower beds before. But my sightings were always frustratingly brief and by the time I got my camera out they were often gone. This time there was an entire family to follow and I decided to make a concerted effort to try to persuade them to stay in the garden.
Their artistic appeal
Both stoats and weasels have always intrigued me, but I’ve never been able to watch them for long enough to be able to paint them accurately. I really wanted to get an understanding of how their long, sinuous bodies moved and what they were actually like as characters. I was attracted by the challenge of how to translate what I discovered into a painting.
Tracking and following these secretive animals
These tiny mustelids were tricky to track down. I deployed 60 surveillance cameras outside their hideaways, but even with all this technology I often lost them.
Click above to watch some of my stoat footage
What I find really helpful is the sounds the birds in the garden make when they spot a stoat or weasel approaching. Birds have particular calls that they make when there is a ground predator and I have learned how to decipher their calls.
I also used old-fashioned tracking skills. If you look carefully at the way the dew has been knocked off the grass in the early morning, you can follow the path a stoat or a weasel has just taken. It was possible to work out their regular runs by looking at how the grasses were bent over; grass has a different sheen to it if it has been continually pushed over. In the snow it is even easier because you can see their tracks.
In this way I was able to track down their nests and then watch the females as they took food in for their kits.
Building bespoke habitats
I also offered extra food to encourage them to the habitats I had created for them. This is called supplement feeding because it is in addition to what they catch for themselves and not a replacement diet for them. It means that I can photograph and film them as they come to take the food.
My favourite characters
Both stoats and weasels are full of mischief. They can climb, burrow and swim with ease and so there is always something amusing to see when you watch them. Over the years I have come to know six generations of the same stoat family by sight. A few are firm favourites. Stanley, who was born in my garden in 2016 is so adventurous, he’s always up to mischief and utterly fearless. Consequently, he is also accident-prone – when he was just tiny he fell into the pond!
Bandita is another favourite, she is very rare as she possesses the genes that gives some stoats the ability to turn white in winter. I’ve watched her undergo this process and it is fascinating, but also quite frustrating as her white, ermine, coat makes her almost impossible to see in winter.
I’m writing a book about the stoats and weasels in the garden
I am writing and illustrating a coffee table book on stoats and weasels, but my research into their secret lives won’t end there. Each year I learn more about their secretive world and will continue to follow their lives and paint their portraits for as long as possible. It’s fascinating to be able to follow individuals for years and really get to grips in understanding them.
Fascinating facts I’ve learned
As far as I know I am the only person in the world to have filmed inside wild stoat and weasel nests, recording them as they raise their families. It has been a fascinating journey.
A stoat’s body is designed to hunt
I’ve learned that stoats have developed fascinating adaptations to help them hunt, like the long whiskers on the elbows of their front legs. These are highly sensitive and help them to grasp prey. They also have these on their tails to help them reverse out of their tight burrows, feeling their way backwards.
Stoats Climb Trees
I’ve also learned that both animals are surprisingly arboreal – they can climb trees as well as any squirrel.
Stoats Can Swim
They also love water. It has been amazing to watch them swim and dive underwater. They submerge themselves so competently it’s like watching mini otters playing in the shallows.
Offering these much-maligned mustelids a makeover.
The main thing I would like people to come away with after watching my weasel films and seeing my photographs is a new admiration, and perhaps even a love, for these pocket rocket predators. Up until now stoats and weasels have had such a bad press.
Despised in history
People despise them as vermin, but although they do eat young game birds they also eat rats, which can be far more of a nuisance as a species. And throughout history people have viewed weasels and stoats in a negative light. Even in children’s’ books, like the Wind in the Willows for instance, they are cast as the baddies. And the very word weasel means to sneak or connive.
Weasels & stoats are fun
I’d like people to see that these animals are so much more than that. They are fearless and ruthless hunters, but given their size, they have to be to survive and actually their tenacity is awesome. Gram for gram, weasels are actually stronger than lions!
And they can also be endearing, especially if you see the way they care for their own. It seems that although weasels and stoats are very common mammals, we know more about the habits of snow leopards. It’s time to get to know them!
Apron and Oven Gloves
(Apron and Oven Gloves)
Buy the Oven Glove and the Apron as a set for just £36
Lap Tray with Cushion - Hare Today by Robert E Fuller
(Lap tray with Cushion)
Red Stag - Glass Work Top Saver by Robert E Fuller
(Glass Worktop Savers )