LAST MONTH a pine marten spotted in Shropshire made it into the national newspapers. Pine martens are Great Britain’s rarest native mammal and any evidence that they are living wild sparks a wave of excitement in conservation circles.
Recently, the population of pine martens has increased in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands. But even there this nocturnal animal, roughly the size of a cat but slim, with brown fur, a bushy tail and a creamy-yellow throat, is elusive.
I spent a frustrating week last summer trying to watch this rare mammal in Strontian, on the Ardurmurchan Peninsula.
I had booked a holiday cottage where pine martens had been spotted daily in the garden. But despite bringing a barrage of camera surveillance equipment and security lights to film the area at night, I only caught a few glimpses of this rare but attractive predator.
The Scottish weather didn’t help. It was raining heavily when I arrived and didn’t stop until the next morning.
I was determined not to be deterred from the job at hand and despite having just driven all the way from Yorkshire, I set about building a photo-set in the garden for the pine martens to pose in if they showed up.
Working in the pouring rain, I found some old logs and moss leaves in the surrounding forest and dragged them to the garden of the cottage to create a ‘natural’ backdrop for my photographs.
I then set about unloading my boxes of equipment. I had surveillance cameras, screens, wires, batteries, camera traps, security lights, motion sensors, camouflage netting, tripods, cameras, flashes and more.
It was 9.15pm before I was finally rigged up and able to settle down in a lean-to sun room with a cup of tea to wait for a pine marten to show.
A dim light illuminated part of the garden and the rain was getting worse. It was driving against the windows so that I could barely see out at all.
I occupied myself with the job of wiring some more lights to illuminate the rest of the garden and finished the wiring by 10.30pm.
As I opened the door to leave, there was a very wet pine marten, less than 4ft away from me, nibbling at some raisins that I had left out.
The rain was so heavy that it hadn’t heard me open the door and I stood and watched as it ate the dried fruit and then dashed around the garden looking for more food.
I noticed it was searching in quite specific places and realised that these must be the places where it was usually fed.
I wanted the pine marten to pose on my log backdrop, so this meant I was going to have to train it to look on the logs if I was going to get the photographs I was after.
I ventured out into the rain to lay a trail of raisins and dabs of peanut butter and jam which would lead it to the logs. I then retreated into my pine marten headquarters to watch what happened. Sure enough it followed the trail and climbed onto the log photo shoot. I decided to call it a day and set my surveillance cameras to start recording through the night.
That night I went to bed quietly content. Despite all the misgivings, I had seen a pine marten on my first night and I had even persuaded it to pose on set for me.
The next morning I woke at 5.30am and went out to check the camera traps and see if the food had gone. There were only a few raisins left but the camera trap had not recorded - a battery had somehow become dislodged.
I waited until 10am for the pine marten to show up for its breakfast but with no show I decided to venture out and re-set the camera trap.
I was just returning the camera to its post when a pine marten ran out from under my log set. I couldn’t believe it. I had waited for hours and just as it turned up I had frightened it away. I waited for another hour but it didn’t return and so I spent the rest of the day refining the set up.
That evening I listened for bird calls, hoping to hear the alarm which would herald a pine marten’s approach.
But the only sounds were the call of oystercatchers on the nearby loch and the squawk of a heron flying overhead.Then all fell quiet and I heard a rustle in the undergrowth. Out popped a wood mouse.
At 11pm there was another movement. But this turned out to be a cat. I gave up at midnight but the next morning the camera trap showed a pine marten visiting at 12.45am.
It wasn’t until almost the end of my holiday that I actually got a photograph of a pine marten. I was busy smearing peanut butter onto a log when I heard a black bird call out an alarm. I waited for nearly two hours when I heard an animal moving through the forest.
I peered into the night and there, its cream bib catching the glow from my night lights, was a pine marten. I reached over to adjust the dimmer switch to brighten the scene and the pine marten stood up on its back legs in alarm, then leapt on to the logs and began to eat the peanut butter. It looked my way for a split second and in that moment I got the photographs I was after.
These tiny predators really are difficult to watch. I’m hoping that the recent sighting of a pine marten in Shropshire could be the beginning of their reintroduction into other areas of the country – maybe one day it will become established here in the forests of Yorkshire.
An elusive carnivore
The pine marten is a relative of the weasel and used to be widespread in Britain. But after centuries of persecution by furriers and gamekeepers it was almost wiped out in the 1800s.
These slender carnivores have been on the verge of extinction in this country since the 1920s with small isolated pockets living only in the Lake District, North Wales and Scotland.
A single female was seen in Cornwall in March and last year there was even an unconfirmed sighting on the North York Moors.
However it is not known whether these recent sightings are truly wild creatures, escapees from zoos or simply other creatures that had been misidentified.