The female weasel living in my garden is expecting kits. Her swollen belly bulges out so incongruously against her otherwise long, slim body it makes her look an elongated tear drop.
I’ve been monitoring this tiny mustelid’s every move since April and I’m now counting the days until she gives birth. I have cameras trained inside and outside her nest. I don’t want to miss a moment of the action.
Small enough to slink through a wedding ring and furiously fast; weasels are notoriously difficult to study in the wild. In fact, all that most people have ever seen of a weasel is of it flashing across the road before it disappears into the undergrowth. But I have adapted a part of my garden in North Yorkshire to attract wild weasels. I’ve built feeding chambers and nest boxes for them and then rigged up cameras so that I can study them in their natural habitat for my paintings.
But the love affair was all emotion and little action and the pregnancy a false alarm. Now that her belly is so unmistakably swollen I can see how wrong I was. Looking back their courtship was too tame and their mating too gentle.
I know this because on the very day that I had expected Teasel to give birth, another male arrived on the scene. A much bigger, rougher character who tumbled Teasel to the ground in a brutal tryst that reminded me why these tiny creatures have a reputation for being so vicious.
It was as though this male had come along and said: “Now this is how you do it” and sure enough after that episode there was no doubt that Teasel was pregnant. She even seemed grateful and curled up with him lovingly despite her two and a half hour ordeal.
Her original boyfriend, whom I had nicknamed Two Spots after the markings under his chin, was all that was left of a litter of seven kits that were born here last summer.
I had spent much of last year watching and photographing this wild family and adapting my garden for them. By the end of the summer they became so accustomed to my presence they would scamper right past me as I sat on my studio steps with my camera.
I am an artist and the purpose behind all my surveillance is to study wild creatures in their natural habitats for my paintings. I couldn’t help adapting the backdrop a little so that my painting subjects appeared as if on set as they would in their final frame. I built a dry stone wall in front of the nesting chamber so that I could photograph the weasels peering out from it and added a reflection pool. And in another part of the garden I assembled a pile of hedge root balls to mimic a more natural setting in the wild.
The weasel area of my garden, which I teasingly described as ‘Weasel Town’, grew from the first moment I spotted Two Spot’s mother in the garden last spring.
As soon as I noticed the female in my garden, I set about making sure she stayed here. I left food out for her, built specially designed feeding boxes – big enough for a weasel to get into but too small for a stoat – and eventually made her a nesting chamber.
The project, which involved 12 CCTV cameras hidden in the garden sending live images to my studio, led to my filming the first ever video of wild weasel kits being nursed in their nest.
I followed this female weasel from the moment she first mated, in an equally brutal tryst, to the time her kits took their first ginger steps into the outside world. It was incredible to discover that female weasels move their kits to new sites every few days and I photographed her as she carried them gently in her mouth, one by one.
I was even privileged enough to look in on the day that the adult female took the kits out on their first hunting expedition. By this time there were only five kits left from the original seven, four males and one female -a mini-fuzzy version of her mother. I suspect a stoat, which also lived in the garden, had got the other two.
They were just 48 days old and they behaved impeccably, following their mother nose to tail through the undergrowth as if they were all one animal. They shadowed her in this way, responding in unison to each of her chittering calls to attention, until they all reached an area of long meadow grass where I could no longer see them.
Very shortly afterwards, I heard a squealing distress call. I ran over and parted the tall grasses. There was a weasel kit wrestling a young rat. They were rolling and writhing about. One moment the weasel seemed to be winning, the next moment the rat had the upper hand. The rat tried biting the weasel’s face.
The weasel wrapped its long body around the rat to deliver a killer bite to the back of its neck; they spun as they tussled. I dashed to the house to get my camera. By the time I got back the weasel was winning the war and the rat’s squeals had subdued.
The weasel had the rat by the throat and was viciously biting into it. It was making sure that the rat was not just playing dead. It definitely was dead but it was still flicking and twitching. The weasel had been so caught up in the fight, that it hadn’t noticed me standing right over it filming.
It dashed off into long grasses to eat its well-earned meal and shortly afterwards I heard another young rat being caught by one of the other weasels.
It was a harsh initiation. If the rat’s mother had muscled in these weasels could easily have been killed. Female rats are among the most dangerous prey to attempt. And these weasels didn’t even need the food since I had left plenty for this growing family in the feeding box.
Clearly you have to be tough to survive as a weasel. The adult female disappeared later in the year, shortly after I watched her fighting with the stoat to protect her kits, and over the winter only Two Spots remained here. I imagine the other males naturally dispersed to find new territories.
I kept up my feeding regime in the hope that he would attract a female and sure enough Teasel turned up. Then the new male and now here I am waiting to greet a new generation of weasels models to paint this year.