December 10 2013 Latest news:
Friday, August 16, 2013
Curled up in a nest with their protective mother, these tiny, wrinkled baby stoats have no concept of the world outside – let alone the idea they will one day be TV celebrities.
Although their home looks for all the world like a re-possessed rabbit warren, the 10 kits were actually born in a purpose-built chamber, constructed at the Norfolk home of experienced wildlife cameraman Martin Hayward Smith.
And the never-before-seen footage he captured of these youngsters being fed, groomed and suckled during the first weeks of their lives will be shown to a national audience tonight.
BBC Two series The Burrowers, presented by Chris Packham, will shed light on the extraordinary subterranean world of creatures including voles, rabbits, badgers and moles.
In order to contribute footage of stoats, Mr Hayward Smith built an enclosure for a pair of the animals in the garden of his home at East Barsham, near Fakenham.
Nature took its course, and he was delighted when the female stoat gave birth to ten youngsters in March.
With three cameras linked by cables to monitors in his lounge, the film-maker was able to watch as the family drama unfolded.
“It is all unique footage of family life going on in the chamber, “ he said. “Feeding, suckling, grooming... the whole cycle.
“It is amazing what you can do in foreign countries, but here we find something on our own doorstep which has not been covered before.
“People normally only see stoats when they are driving along in their car and see a flash running across in front of them. That is the only glimpse the public gets to see, so to be able to study them like this is absolutely remarkable.”
The stoat family’s nesting chamber included two entrance holes, with tunnels sculpted from wire mesh and covered in earth and plant roots.
“It is replicating a rabbit warren, and it has been landscaped as a film set,” said Mr Hayward Smith. “It took a month to design and build, to ensure that the right light was in there, that the camera angles were OK and that it was the correct temperature for her.”
Mr Hayward said the young carnivores were given their first taste of meat by their parents at the age of five weeks, before they had even opened their eyes.
Aided by his 15-year-old daughter Megan, he scoured the roads for dead blackbirds, pigeons and rabbits to ensure the larder remained well stocked – prompting several “strange looks” from passing motorists.
Last year, the cameraman spent two months in the Brecks filming stoats hunting in the wild.
“I have learnt so much from these adorable rouges, for they are killing machines,” he said. “To see them bring down a rabbit three times their own size and drag it into some cover is quite remarkable.
“Their main staple diet is rabbits but if there are young chicks around they will take them, and if there are chicken eggs or other birds’ eggs they will roll them along the ground with their noses. It is quite a sight.”
Mr Hayward Smith said he filmed the young stoats over a period of eight weeks, and they were released at a secret location when they were 16 weeks old.
The first of three episodes of The Burrowers will be shown at 9pm tonight on BBC Two.