Pine martens were once Britain’s second most common carnivore but following years of persecution you now have to go to some effort to see one.
This summer, I headed to the remote Ardnamurchan peninsular in Western Scotland, one of the few remaining strongholds, to try my luck. I’d visited the area before but the trip was thwarted by relentless rain.
As I drove north the temperature dropped dramatically, it started to rain and I began to have serious misgivings. But at the cottage I’d booked, I was told that if I put food on the table on the front deck the pine martens would come that evening.
I’d brought a Land Rover full of cameras, lighting, camera traps, surveillance cameras, TV monitors, hides, tripods, flash guns, tools and torches, and had even strapped small tree trunks to the roof for the pine martens to pose on. As I began unloading I couldn’t help but pause to admire the stunning view of Loch Sunart and the Isle of Canna that stretched before the cottage.
I put a dollop of peanut butter on the table and positioned my tree trunks around the garden. I nipped into the cottage to fetch my cameras and was just about to go back out when I spotted a female pine marten already polishing off the peanut butter. She was just 5ft away. I froze and enjoyed the best view I’d ever had of a pine marten.
I was transfixed by her huge feet as she bounded around the deck. They were pristine, white, with sharp cat-like claws built for climbing. These claws are non-retractable so when pine martens aren’t climbing they walk on their pads, making them look unusually prominent.
I rushed about setting up my cameras and props so I’d be ready for her next visit. Instead of leaving food out on the deck, I smeared peanut butter and jam on rocks in the garden and the tree trunks I had brought so that my photographs would have a more natural looking backdrop. But as dusk fell I became quite anxious that the pine martens might not find the food, as it was now 20 metres away from the decking.
Suddenly two pine martens came running across the grass and climbed straight on to a rock. These two were smaller than the female I’d seen earlier and had fuzzier coats. I realised these were kits, a male and a female - one kit was much bigger than the other.
The female joined them and as the three bounded round the garden it was hard to know which one to photograph first. As it got dark I lit up the garden with a spotlight and powerful torches. The pine martens didn’t mind this artificial light and the kits even jumped up at the flashguns inquisitively.
The next morning I was up at 5am to put more food out. It was a beautiful day, the water in the loch was like glass and I wondered if I would get some pictures of the pine martens in daylight.
I spotted an otter fishing in the bay, but I resisted an urge to follow it and devoted my day instead to re-arranging my tree trunk props to greater effect. By evening it was all ready: the branches smeared with peanut butter, raisins and jam.
The plan was nearly dashed when I spotted a red deer licking these offerings from the branches. I tried to shoo it away, but it just looked at me and went back to scoffing the peanut butter. It wasn’t until I walked right up to it that it wandered down to the banks of the loch.
A hedgehog had also found the food and just as I was beginning to worry there wouldn’t be any left the pine martens turned up - first the female, then the two kits. I watched them for over four hours.
I spent over 10 hours a day watching and waiting for the pine martens and reviewing my camera trap footage. I noticed that they were mainly active on dull, overcast days or at dawn and dusk when the light was poor, but there was one thing missing - I had yet to see the male.
It was on my third day that an adult male pine marten visited my tree trunks at 6am. He was as big as a large cat and remarkably agile for his size, and on the fourth day I was rewarded with some fascinating behaviour between the male and female.
The male arrived and climbed up a dead oak tree, followed soon after by the female. I could hear them chittering to one another. She climbed over him and then under his legs, brushing her body against his.
They then fed peacefully alongside one another. Once they’d finished they came down onto a large rock and he started to feed. As he did so she climbed on top of him and lay down on his back, top to tail, her back legs dangling over his sides and her mouth open as if she was panting. She slid over him, rubbing her lower body along the length of his back and along his tail to leave a trail of scent. It was clear she was marking him as if to say ‘you’re mine’.
As I was packing up on my last day the male kit arrived. I got some of the best photographs of the trip as he climbed up the trunk of a tall silver birch tree and then down again, wrapping his back legs around the vertical trunk.
As I sat on the doorstep photographing the kit, the female came onto the deck and jumped onto the bench next to me. She put her front paws up on the arm rest, looked me in the eye and sniffed me. She was just 3ft away. It was an amazing end to a wonderful trip.