Fast, furious and deeply secretive, stoats and weasels are among the world’s least understood mammals. In fact more is known about the habits of snow leopards and the behaviour of tigers, than about these tiny mammals.

And still these minute mustelids have a poor reputation. As a child, growing up on a farm in Givendale on the Yorkshire Wolds, I learned from gamekeepers of their vicious natures and was encouraged to think of them as vermin. But their reputation for brutality impressed me. I’ve seen stoats catch rabbits three times their size and watched a weasel kit kill a rat. A stoat measures 19cms, and a weasel is so small it could slip through a wedding ring. Gram for gram these mammals are stronger than lions.

During the last five years I have been on a mission to learn more about these pocket-sized predators for a new series of paintings, due to go on exhibit at my gallery in Thixendale, near Malton, from June 15- July 7.

My obsession began one evening, just as I was lowering myself into a hot bath. My wife burst in to tell me she could see a family of stoats playing in the garden. I rushed downstairs wearing nothing but my towel.

Outside stoats bounced in and out of the long waving grasses. I guessed there were at least six, including five kits. I decided to try to encourage them to stay and set about building a ‘stoat city’ full of places to eat, live and play. I also set up a complex network of surveillance cameras to follow their every move.

I have now filmed six generations of the same stoat family. And I’ve learned a lot. As long and slim as cucumbers, stoats can climb as well as squirrels and manoeuvre in and out of tight spaces. At Christmas I witnessed their ultimate trick; the ability to turn white in winter.

Six months into my stoat studies, a visitor to my gallery claimed to have spotted a baby stoat outside my studio window. In fact she had seen a weasel, the stoat’s diminutive cousin. It was an easy mistake to make as the two are often confused. The difference is slight: stoats are larger and have black tips to their tails.

Now I had an opportunity to study two of the world’s most secretive carnivores on my doorstep. With much of my plot taken over by ‘stoat city’, I turned the back garden into ‘weasel town’, filling it with wooden boxes equipped with the latest surveillance technology.

Weasels and stoats are bitter rivals and I needed some distance between the two. As a precaution, I made the entrance holes to the weasel’s living quarters 32mm – too small for a stoat to break in and enter.

Over time, the female weasel settled in her new habitat. But when a male appeared on the scene I worried she would flee. Males have a reputation for brutality and it wasn’t long before I witnessed the horror of their pitiless courtship.

The male chased her through the shrubbery and rolled her over. She escaped his grasp and scrambled on to a small bush, hissing and spitting in fury. But he grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and carried her off out of sight. In the hope they had bred, I built her a bespoke nesting chamber. It was a relief when three days later my cameras filmed her inside, arranging some dry grasses and leaves into a neat dome. As the weeks passed her girth grew so wide she could no longer fit into her new home. She eventually gave birth under my shed where I couldn’t film her. But a week later she carried her seven six-day-old kits back into the chamber and my cameras started rolling.

Each kit was an inch long, blind and hairless. Despite their size they already had a taste for blood and would suck at the prey their mother brought in to the nest.

Weasels need to be tough to survive and at just 48 days old the female took her kits on their first ever hunting expedition.

But I discovered that weasel kits also have a playful, fun side and they were a joy to watch as they bounced through the flower beds chasing one another. And the following year I learned that relations between males and females are not always brutal after a watching a loved-up pair curl up together inside my nesting chamber for days.

These discoveries and further insights into the behaviour of the stoats in neighbouring ‘stoat city’ have given me plenty of inspiration for my art.


A new exhibition featuring the paintings inspired by Robert’s stoat studies opens at his gallery in Thixendale from June 15 - July 7. ‘Wild About Stoats And Weasels’ will include films made inside the secret nests of these little known mammals and the photographs that informed the new artworks. The event precedes the release of a new BBC Natural World documentary filmed in the artist’s garden. For more information see