The weasel kits continue to entertain me outside my kitchen window. This one is indulging in a really good scratch!
If you've been following this blog you will know that they are among seven young weasel kits I've been filming ever since spotting their mother in my garden this spring.
Watching the intimate interactions of this species ranks among the most spectacular sightings I’ve had in a life-time of watching wildlife.
Although weasels are common enough mammals in the UK, it is rare to get more than a fleeting glimpse of one before it disappears into the undergrowth.
But thanks a series of cameras hidden in my garden, I have followed the secret behaviour of these tiny predators through the seasons.
I even witnessed their aggressive mating ritual - right outside my kitchen window. This was incredible. The male literally 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 in March, after Lara, who works in my gallery, came rushing to find me claiming she had spotted a baby stoat in the garden.
Weasels are often mistaken for stoats. But as they are much smaller and, as it was too early for stoat kits, I knew by her description that she must have actually seen a weasel.
A few days later I saw the weasel for myself from my studio window, which overlooks the same patch of garden.
I dashed downstairs, grabbed my camera and took my first ever photographs of a weasel from the kitchen window.
Looking back through these photographs, I could tell the weasel was a female since she had very delicate features. I was surprised how small she was: just twice the size of a wood mouse.
I decided I needed to get her to feed regularly in the garden so that I could study her closely for a new painting.
I set about designing four ‘weasel feeders’, special wooden boxes fitted with fine mesh floors and Perspex sliding roofs. I drilled 32mm entrance holes into the sides, big enough for a weasel to get in and out but, importantly, too small for a stoat or rat.
I positioned each box in different locations in my back garden, where I had seen the weasel hunting, and baited them with dead mice or voles every day. Sometimes I dragged the bait over the ground in front of the box to leave a scent trail.
After 10 days of repeating this process I’d had no joy and was starting to get disheartened. Then one morning I heard the birds in the garden calling out in alarm. Interestingly their calls were much more subtle then when a sparrowhawk is on the scene.
As I looked out of the window I could see a weasel going from feeder to feeder diligently taking each rodent. Success! I reached for my camera and quickly snapped it as it made off down the path. I was off to a good start.
Over the next few weeks, the weasel started to come most days. But its raids were so quick I often missed its visits.
I decided to reduce the number of feeding boxes down to one. With just one box to keep an eye on I would have a much better chance of getting clear sightings.
I fitted the box with a tiny camera so that I could see inside via a TV screen in my studio and a motion sensor with an alarm, which would alert me when it arrived.
Then I artfully placed tree roots in front of this entrance so that any photographs I took would make it look as though the weasel was emerging from a natural setting.
It took a few days to get the weasel to return to this adapted feeder, but one morning she dashed up through the roots and into the box. I watched on my TV monitor as she grabbed the mouse inside. I had tied down the bait with mini cable ties, so that it would slow the weasel down and give me chance to grab my camera.
I had a fascinating month watching the female weasel. Then one day a male arrived and went into the feeding box. He was much bigger and stockier than the female. He became a regular visitor too, although the relationship between them was very tense.
But, spurred on by the possibility that this could be a mate for her, I headed off to the workshop to finish off a nesting chamber I had already started to build.
I made this out of a hollow hawthorn log and again hid a camera in it. It had a six inch hollow middle, which was the perfect size for such a small mammal. I put the whole thing into a small plastic bin and fixed three 32mm pipes leading in to 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. The pipes smelt of new plastic so I poured soil and sand through it before pulling a dead vole on a bit of string through too for good measure.
From the outside it looked a bit like a blue Dalek. I buried it in its entirety in the back garden. Then each day I tied a dead mouse with a cable tie onto a dead grass stem and threaded it about six inches down the pipes to attract the female weasel into the nest.
Then one day in late April the female came to the feeding box as usual. She was followed by the male, which ran in to the tree roots and flushed her out.
She fled, but she wasn’t quick enough. The male caught her and rolled her over into a conifer. She was squeaking, hissing and spitting in aggression. As she rolled on to her back the bush was shaking and I got fleeting glimpses of weasels bobbing up and then disappearing behind the foliage.
I ran upstairs to get a better view. The female scrambled on top of a small shrub and leapt onto the path. But she wasn’t quick enough. The male grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and carried her off out of sight.
I didn’t see either weasel for the next three days which was unusual. I was worried that the male had chased her away, but I hoped that they were just mating. I was pleased to see her back one evening and even more pleased to see her investigating her new, bespoke, 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, incredibly, she set about neatly building 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. She was now slim enough to fit into it again. The kits were just over one inch long. They were blind and hairless. They couldn’t walk but could 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. She dragged it into the nesting chamber with the kits. And I was amazed to see how the seemingly helpless kits quickly wriggled towards this new food source and started to suck on it. Who would have thought that such young creatures would already have the taste for meat at such an early stage?
I can now watch her and her growing family live on screens from inside my gallery. And visitors are being treated to an extremely rare sight too.