FOR five years now my attention has focused on the secret comings and goings of Britain’s smallest predators - weasels and stoats. My findings, and the painting, films and photographs they inspired, are on show at my gallery in Thixendale until Sunday, July 7.

Using modern surveillance technology, I’ve been able to film the intimate lives of these creatures and I’ve uncovered behaviour that is at the forefront of research.

Among these is how males and female weasels interact. Until now it was thought that all relations between the sexes were hostile. But my garden study has revealed that adults are capable of tenderness too.

Although the animals are not aware of it, being a weasel in my garden is akin to being on the set of Big Brother. I’ve built weasel paths along log piles and hedges with cameras covering every route linking feeding chambers to nests.

I had been watching a male called Two Spots Jnr, who I named after the markings you can see under his chin when he stretches. He was the only kit to remain in the territory from a litter of seven that had been born in the garden the previous year.

When a new female appeared on the scene, I was interested to see his response. Their first meetings were very tentative. They would pop their heads out of adjacent vole holes simultaneously, then dash away from each other. Moments later, they would appear out of different holes, looking around to see where the other was.

A few days later I saw them touching noses. Soon they were spending more time together and seemed relaxed in each other’s company. Then, the moment I had been waiting for: these two tiny predators were curled up inside one of my underground nest boxes, in loved-up bliss. It was sweet to watch them lovingly grooming one another and hear them chittering affectionately on the hidden microphones.

The two were inseparable - in stark contrast with everything I had ever read about the brutal courtship of weasels. I decided to call this new female Teasel after the way she teased and pestered her mate. She was the one who made all the advances, mounting and mock-mating Two Spots Jnr as he dozed. She seemed to be trying to stir him into action.

It had the desired effect, but he was young and inexperienced. His first attempts didn’t seem to be going to plan, much to her frustration. To his credit he kept on trying and I hoped that one of these couplings would be successful.

But then the atmosphere between Two Spots Jnr and Teasel changed.

Two Spots Jnr seemed to experience a surge of testosterone. His testicles turned purple and grew so swollen he could barely hold his tail down.

He had had enough of her. He attacked poor Teasel and evicted her from their underground nest. She tried to return a few days later and he attacked her again.

Despite this sudden change, I was hopeful that having seen all the mating inside the nesting box Teasel was pregnant and I held my breath for late May when I hoped she would give birth to kits inside one of the nesting chambers rigged with cameras.

But there was no sign that she was going to have kits. I wondered how this could be, considering how much time Two Spots Jnr and Teasel had spent mating. But then on the very day that I had calculated that Teasel was supposed to give birth, a new male appeared on the scene. He was much bigger than Two Spots Jnr, with pale fur that was beginning to moult around the shoulders. I called him Caramac.

The first time I saw him he was already inside the nest box. He blocked Teasel in the entrance tunnel and forced her back inside. I watched the TV monitors as they relayed live images from the hidden cameras as he cornered her in the box, sunk his teeth into the scruff of her neck and proceeded to mate her for more than two hours in a protracted and violent coupling. This was much more aggressive that the tender approach of Two Spots Jnr!

Scientific research has shown that weasels are induced ovulators – the act of mating stimulates the release of eggs from the ovary. Within weeks Teasel’s belly had swollen. Normally so slender, she looked like a rope with a knot in it.

As I waited for Teasel’s pregnancy to come to term, I wondered about my observations of her love affair with Two Spots Jnr and how nothing had come of it.

It seems to me their relationship was all emotion and little action. Looking back their courtship was too tame and their mating too gentle to result in pregnancy.

But it was wonderful to document the interaction and to add a little more to the growing research into one of Britain’s least understood mammals.

Robert’s exhibition, Wild About Stoats & Weasels: An Artist’s Perspective, runs at his gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, until Sunday, July 7.

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