WEASELS AND STOATS

More is known about the habits of snow leop­ards than of weasels and stoats, so wildlife artist and photographer Robert E Fuller cre­ated a haven in his gar­den in or­der to cap­ture their mag­i­cal, bru­tal lives. Here’s what he found…

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Pho­tos: Robert E Fuller

When tiny hunters moved into his gar­den, wildlife artist and photographer Robert E Fuller made them wel­come – and cap­tured the re­sults on cam­era. Here he re­veals his in­cred­i­ble por­traits.

Un­trust­wor­thy, sly and vi­cious: the re­put­edly 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.

How­ever, lit­tle is known about them. There have been more doc­u­men­taries ded­i­cated to the tiger than the stoat. This is sur­pris­ing since these small mustelids in­habit ev­ery con­ti­nent, ex­cept Antarc­tica. This lack of cov­er­age is due to their se­cre­tive na­ture, their size and their speed. Both are tiny. A fe­male stoat mea­sures just 19cm, while 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. On one oc­ca­sion, I came across stoat kits. Their mother rushed at me, hiss­ing and spit­ting. She dis­played re­mark­able tenac­ity and fear­less­ness, con­sid­er­ing her size.

As a pro­fes­sional wildlife artist and photographer, I have made it my mis­sion to get in­side their se­cret world. I set up a com­plex net­work of sur­veil­lance cam­eras that criss­cross my gar­den and a col­lec­tion of tai­lor-made nest­ing cham­bers and feed­ing boxes. I have even built an un­der­ground tun­nel so that 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.

STOATS AMAZ­ING

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 the long, wav­ing grasses. Count­ing them was dif­fi­cult, but I guessed there were at least six, in­clud­ing five kits. It was an in­cred­i­ble spec­ta­cle.

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 I’d found on the road, in the hope that they would take the bait. The next morn­ing, a stoat was tuck­ing in. I en­cour­aged my new guests to stay by build­ing a ‘stoat city’, full of places to eat, live and play, en­abling me to film and study their en­tire lives.

Their agility sur­prised me. Their long, slim bod­ies can ma­noeu­vre through com­plex un­der­ground bur­rows and thorny hedgerows in search of food. I built a stoat-sized maze to see how they man­aged com­plex chal­lenges, and was taken aback by how quickly they ne­go­ti­ated the route through tight U-bends.

Christ­mas pre­sented 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.

WEASEL WORLD

Barely six months into the project, a vis­i­tor re­ported spot­ting a baby stoat out­side my art gallery. Think­ing this un­likely, I won­dered if it could be the stoat’s diminu­tive cousin, the weasel, as the two are of­ten con­fused. The next day, the char­ac­ter in ques­tion reap­peared. She was in­deed a fe­male weasel, and breath­tak­ingly small at just 15cm.

I now had an op­por­tu­nity to study two of the world’s most se­cre­tive car­ni­vores as they went about their daily busi­ness on my doorstep. My back gar­den be­came a ‘weasel town’, dot­ted with wooden boxes equipped with sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy and baited 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, and made the en­trance holes to the weasel’s liv­ing quar­ters no big­ger than 32mm – too small for a stoat to break in and en­ter.

Over time, the fe­male weasel set­tled into the gar­den. But then a male ap­peared on the scene. He was dou­ble her weight and heav­ier set. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween them was tense: when­ever he ap­peared, she fled. In case their li­ai­son led to kits, I built a 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. Es­cap­ing his grasp, she scram­bled on top of a small bush, squeak­ing, hiss­ing and spit­ting in fury. Un­de­terred, he 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 in a nest box, lov­ingly coo­ing and preen­ing, although the cou­pling didn’t re­sult in kits. Per­haps bru­tal­ity is an evil ne­ces­sity.

“Weasels and stoats are ri­val rel­a­tives – a stoat will kill a weasel given the chance”

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 man­made home. She even­tu­ally gave birth un­der my shed where, dis­ap­point­ingly, I couldn’t film. A week later she car­ried her seven six-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, and 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. A few days later, the fe­male weasel reap­peared, 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.

Weasels and stoats con­tinue to visit sec­tions of my gar­den and I still fol­low their ev­ery move. I have now filmed more than 30 stoats and 13 weasels, and 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’.

Robert E Fuller is a wildlife artist and nat­u­ral­ist who lives in North York­shire. Visit Robert’s gallery in Thix­en­dale to see the weasels and stoats on live cams. A sum­mer ex­hi­bi­tion of his work will be held from 16 June-8 July. For more de­tails, see robertE­fuller.com

TOP Stoats are larger than weasels, with a long tail tipped in black ABOVE Au­thor and photographer Robert E Fuller has built habi­tats for stoats and weasels in his gar­den, al­low­ing him to take in­ti­mate im­ages of his sub­jects

Weasels are tiny – a fe­male weasel can fit through a wed­ding ring

TOP Weasels have a very high meta­bolic rate and need to eat a third of their body­weight each day. They kill prey with a bite to the base of the skull ABOVE The world’s small­est car­ni­vore, weasels are ex­cep­tion­ally strong for their size

TOP The fe­male weasel car­ries her blind, hair­less kit – but at just 48 days old, it will be able to hunt ABOVE RIGHT This young male stoat kit starts to ex­plore his sur­round­ings at five weeks ABOVE LEFT An in­jured male weasel fol­low­ing a bat­tle with a stoat

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