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…
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.
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.
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