Fearless stoats make play under close surveillance

Speedy visitors have been dashing around and stealing the attention of Robert Fuller. He seized the chance to take some pictures.

PIC: Robert Fuller

I was lowering myself into a nice hot bath after a long day when my wife burst in to announce that there were two stoats playing in the garden.

I grabbed a towel and rushed down the stairs, gathering up my tripod and camera under my arm as I ran towards the French windows in the living room.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Sure enough there were two young stoats playing right beside the patio. I opened one of the doors as quietly as I could and set up my tripod, wearing nothing but my towel.

The stoats ran into some long grass at the edge of the garden and I was a bit chilly so I nipped back inside to grab a coat and a pair of jeans from the drying rack in the utility room.

When I got back the stoats were out again, chasing each other playfully. They were so fast it was difficult to keep track of them and they kept disappearing over a weld-mesh wall filled with rocks at the garden boundary.

They chased and pounced on one another for about an hour and I think I counted about five in total before all fell quiet.

I wondered if they were going to spend the night in the wall at the end of our garden so I put out a dead rabbit that I happened to have in the freezer to feed some buzzards that I’ve been photographing.

The next morning my luck was in. The stoats had found the rabbit and were tucking into it. I soon got into the habit of putting a regular supply of rabbits out for them so that I could photograph them from the patio.

I had to tie the rabbits down otherwise the stoats would carry them away somewhere quiet and I would miss my chance to photograph them.

I’ve always wanted to study stoats at close quarters but in the past I’ve been thwarted by the fact that they are always on the move and I was only getting fleeting glimpses of them.

Now was my chance to get good enough photographs of their antics for a new painting.

But stoats are top predators and this meant that the rest of the wildlife in my garden was now at risk. I needed to feed them well to distract them from all the birds nesting in the garden.

Once three young stoats had made the garden a regular stomping ground to take advantage of the free food, I set up a surveillance camera to watch them.

I’d been leaving rabbits out for them under a hollow log but it was time to try and photograph them as they moved so I decided to make a stoat assault course.

My plan was to encourage them off the ground and out of the long grasses where I would be able to photograph their whole bodies and not have their feet disguised by vegetation.

Stoats are fantastic climbers and so I moved the hollow log up off the ground and then chose a characterful old log as a ramp to reach it.

I positioned this close to the house. All I had to do was to attract them away from this old feeding place which was a good six metres away. I did this by leaving a trail of meat out to the ramp and up into the hollow log, where I tied a dead rabbit down as a prize.

I had my camera trained on the new spot to capture the moment they appeared, but I found I relied more on the alarm calls of birds to gauge when the stoats were about to appear than I did on the camera surveillance.

With so much plant growth at this time of year it was hard to see where the stoats were in the garden but with my spy cameras relaying images to most rooms in my house, gallery and studio and the early warning sounds made by the birds in the garden, I pretty much had it covered.

After two weeks, the stoats got used to me and even my two children playing on the trampoline in the garden. I noticed that the stoats had even invented their own trampoline – pouncing onto the mesh over the brassicas in the garden, which is suspended nearly three feet off the ground. It was very amusing to watch as they took turns to bounce on it.

The temptation of a free meal meant the stoats visited several times a day. I got to see some extraordinary things. Stoats are fearless and I watched as one pushed a kestrel off a branch as it was eating its food. But it got sharp shrift when it tried the same trick with the family of tawny owls that regularly feeds from a branch I’d set up to feed them from in the garden.

I watched one night as a stoat ran up the branch that the tawny owls perch on, just as two young chicks had settled there. As I looked through my camera lens I saw that the stoat had pushed the young owls off the branch and was now standing at the top. I focussed in on it just in time to see one of the adult birds swoop and grab the stoat, sending it spinning into the field below.

It dropped a good six feet but returned very quickly, running back up the post again for another go. At this point another young tawny owl appeared, its wings fanned out in a defensive posture. This time neither owl nor stoat would back down. The stoat lunged at the owl and the young owl grabbed for the stoat.

The adult female owl then weighed in, plucking the stoat off the log with her talons as she flew by. I thought this time the stoat was a gonner, but it was back within 20 minutes to try again, The stoat never got the tawny owls’ food, but it certainly became a nuisance to them. The stoats still come out when the owls are here but I haven’t seen anything quite as dramatic as that since!