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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
artist obsessed with stoats and weasels
Me, with my latest stoat portrait, painted in acrylics

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.

See the paintings inspired by these studies at a new exhibition opening at my gallery in Yorkshire on Saturday, June 15th.  

 


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!

Click here to read about my stoat studies and what I learned

Spotted in the shrubbery
artist obsessed with weasels
Photograph: Weasel in flowering saxifrage

My garden 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.

artist obsession
Stoat in the Balance | Acrylic Painting | Shop for more like this
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. What I found really helpful was the sounds the birds in the garden made when they spotted 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.

Photograph: Stoat among summer wild flowers
Photograph: Stoat among summer wild flowers

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 in 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!

artist wild about stoats
Photograph: Stanley the stoat, infamous for falling headlong into the pond

Bandita is another favourite, she is very rare as she possess 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.

My research is due to feature on TV in this year’s BBC Natural World series

There is to be an hour-long programme about mustelids, and half of this documentary will be about me and the stoats and weasels in my garden. The programme took a year to film and the crew were here for months. It was a great privilege to work with some of the best wildlife camera men in the world, including Lindsay MacCrae, who filmed penguins for David Attenborough’s BBC natural history series, Dynasties, and Graham McFarlane who’s distinguished film-making career includes a BBC focus on Pangolins and, recently, Expeditions with Steve Backshall. The film they made here uses footage from my surveillance cameras and includes ground breaking film of a stoat family as it is raised.

Click above to watch some of my stoat footage

 

What this level of recognition means 

It means a great deal to me that all my hard work and dedication to this species has been recognised. The Natural World programme will be shown both on BBC and then on CBS in America. And BBC Wildlife Magazine and BBC Countryfile Magazine have both featured my studies this year.

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 
artist wild about stoats
Photograph: stoat kits curled in the nest

So far 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.

artist wild about stoats
Climbing Stoat | Fine Art Print | Shop Now
Stoats Can Swim

They also love water. It has been amazing to watch them swim and dive under water. They submerge themselves so competently it’s like watching like mini otters.

artist wild about stoats
Photograph: testing the water, stoats can swim like mini-otters
Offering these much-maligned mustelids a makeover.

The main thing I would like people to come away with after having watched the TV programme or visiting my exhibition 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.

Click here to read how weasels & stoats fare in our history

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!

artist wild about stoats
This painting reveals the tender protectiveness of a stoat mother

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!

 


Read more: 

All About My Stoat & Weasel Art Exhibition

A Preview of My Stoat & Weasel Art Collection

Stoats & Weasels In My Garden: Mustelids and Me

Stoats vs Weasels: How to Tell The Difference Between A Stoat And A Weasel

Vicious Beasts: Stoats In Mythology

Follow my Stoat Camera Stories for highlights from my live cameras


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