THE story of how I hand-reared a baby weasel touched the hearts of millions after a nature documentary featuring this tiny creature made it to American TV screens last week.

Initially shown on UK screens last October, the BBC programme aimed to dispel society’s long-held assumption that weasels are villainous creatures. And sure enough as the tale of how I adopted tiny Twiz unfolded, viewers reached out via social media in their thousands to assert a newly discovered love for mustelids.

It was an incredible feeling to finally share my passion for these much misunderstood mammals. I follow the daily lives of wild weasels via hidden cameras in my garden and have long believed them to be unworthy of their poor reputation.

Given their size - weasels are the smallest carnivore in the world and are so minute they can fit through a wedding ring - they are admirably tenacious creatures.

Over years of studying and painting them, I have become increasingly knowledgeable about their behaviour and have raised and released several back into the wild. So when Twiz was found at just two weeks old, she was referred on to me.

But even I was at a loss as to how to help a weasel as young as she was. At just 10.6g, she was impossibly small. Blind and deaf, she squirmed around in the palm of my hand with her head wobbling from side to side squeaking in distress.

A fine coat of blonde fur barely covered her pink body. At this age baby weasels, known colloquially as “fingerlings”, are roughly the size of a child’s finger.

I contacted a local rehabilitation centre, an organisation highly skilled at raising small mammals, and asked them to take care of Twiz during this crucial early state.

Twiz was fed via a syringe every hour during the day and every two hours at night - the organiser actually placed the incubator by her bedside in order to feed Twiz every time she squeaked.

Feeding a kit as young as Twiz requires considerable skill. Just a drop of milk on the lungs could drown her or leave her at risk of pneumonia.

The first few days were critical but within two weeks Twiz had doubled her weight and had begun eating meat. She was returned to my care and, at just over a month old, her eyes opened and she was running around.

By now Twiz was also eating dead mice. Instead of just placing these into her box, I pulled them along on a string in the hope that I would teach her that that food doesn’t stay still and that she would have to work to get it if she was going to survive in the wild.

I was careful to be as hands-off as possible, but sometimes when I heard her cry out or squeak for attention I couldn’t help but give in and go and see what she wanted and she would greet me with an excited chitter.

It was always going to be a difficult task to persuade Twiz to separate from me since she had been so very young when I took her in and I worried that she was not independent enough to survive on her own in the wild.

I began the process by building her an outdoor enclosure which I placed alongside another where I was about to release two more rescued weasels. Wire netting separated the two enclosures and I installed cameras so that I could watch how the animals responded to each other.

After a few days I was confident enough to put all the kits into the same enclosure. By now I had been completely hands off for 10 days, but Twiz was still displaying worrying signs of attachment and tried to get my attention every time I went into the enclosure to feed her.

It is difficult to decide when animals are ready to release. Weasels are so tiny that there is a long list of animals that will hunt them down, including kestrels, owls, foxes, stoats (their closest relatives) and even cats. And of course if they have been hand reared, they don’t have the natural wariness that keeps their wild counterparts alive.

I decided it was now or never and so I opened the door to let all three weasels out. I felt very emotional as I watched all three kits rush around the garden giddily.

But although they looked happy, their carefree play unnerved me. I would have been happier if they were a little more wary about being out in the wild.

The next morning Twiz spotted me as soon as I stepped out into the garden and rushed over to me, chittering. She kept darting under my feet - only just avoiding being accidentally trampled on.

I crouched down and she rushed into my hands, whickering excitedly. This was not a good sign. I put her back into the enclosure while I composed my thoughts.

Over the next few days Twiz continued to display an unhealthy attachment to me and so in the end I decided, reluctantly, to keep her.

It would have been better to see her run free in the wild, but she lived in my outdoor enclosure until the ripe old age - for a weasel - of 13 months and during that time she was a wonderful companion - and a stunning model for my paintings, of course.

The story of Twiz was told as part of BBC Natural World: Weasels: Feisty and Fearless. The documentary is available on iPlayer.