THERE IS a litter of weasel kits curled up with their mother showing live on a nest cam in my gallery. Watching their intimate interactions ranks among the most spectacular sightings I’ve had in a life-time of watching wildlife.
Although weasels are common mammals, it’s rare to get more than a fleeting glimpse of one before it disappears into the undergrowth.
I’ve followed the behaviour of these tiny predators via cameras hidden in my garden since the onset of spring, even seeing their aggressive mating ritual right outside my kitchen window. The male 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 after Lara, who works in my gallery, claimed to have spotted a baby stoat in the garden.
Weasels are often mistaken for stoats and a few days later I saw the creature for myself from my studio window and took my first ever photographs of a weasel. I was surprised how small she was: just twice the size of a wood mouse.
I decided to get her to feed regularly in the garden so I could study her for a new painting. I designed four ‘weasel feeders’, wooden boxes fitted with fine mesh floors and Perspex sliding roofs. I drilled 32mm entrance holes into the sides, big enough for a wease but too small for a stoat or rat. Each box was positioned in different locations in my garden, where I’d seen the weasel hunting, and baited them with dead mice or voles every day.
One morning I heard the birds in the garden calling out and peering from the window I saw a weasel going from feeder to feeder, diligently taking each rodent. I reached for my camera and quickly snapped it as it made off down the path.
Over the next few weeks, the weasel came most days but its raids were often too quick so I reduced the number of feeding boxes down to one and fitted it with a tiny camera so that I could see inside via a TV screen in my studio and a motion sensor with an alarm to alert me when it arrived. I placed tree roots in front of the entrance so that any photographs would make it look like the weasel was emerging from a natural setting.
One morning she dashed up through the roots and into the box. I watched on my TV monitor as she grabbed the mouse I had tied down inside to slow the weasel down and give me chance to grab my camera.
I had a fascinating month watching the female before a male arrived and went into the feeding box. He became a regular visitor too, although the relationship between them was very tense. But, spurred on by the possibility this could be a mate for her, I hastily finished a nesting chamber made out of a hollow hawthorn log. Again, I hid a camera in it. I put the whole thing into a small plastic bin and fixed three 32mm pipes leading into 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. I pulled a dead vole on a bit of string through the pipe too for good measure.
I buried it in its entirety in the back garden and each day I tied a dead mouse onto a dead grass stem and threaded it down the pipes to attract the female weasel into the nest.
One day in late April the female came to the feeding box followed by the male, which ran into the tree roots and flushed her out. She fled but the male caught her and rolled her over. She squeaked, hissed and spat, then scrambled atop a shrub and leapt onto the path. But she wasn’t quick enough and the male grabbed her and carried her off out of sight.
I didn’t see either weasel for three days and was worried the male had chased her away. But I was pleased to see her back one evening and even more pleased to see her investigating her new 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 she built 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.
A week later she brought her five kits into the original nesting chamber one at a time. They were blind and hairless and could only 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.
I was quite amazed to see how the seemingly helpless kits quickly wriggled towards this new food source and started to feed.
See for yourself
Wildlife artist Robert Fuller is currently holding an exhibition called ‘Natural Wonders of the Wildlife World’ at his gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire.
On show for visitors to enjoy are his latest paintings, which he has been inspired to produce by his secret video studies of animals and birds in his garden.
Visitors can also catch a rare live glimpse of the new family of weasels in her nesting chamber. Footage showing the female and her growing young is being broadcast on the television screens inside the Mr Fuller’s gallery.
The exhibition is open seven days a week and will continue until Sunday, June 28.
For more details, visit the artist’s website at www.robertefuller.com