Viewing pine martens and badgers in Scotland
A visit to the Highlands of Scotland can give you a close encounter with the normally elusive pine marten and superb views of badgers, as Sheena Harvey found out.
There was a chilly wind blowing in our faces as we followed our guide along a stony track. Our little group of wildlife watchers were aiming for a wooden hide with large windows. It was on a slight rise with woods and rough grassland behind and a tree-covered hill in front. To one side, a small cottage showed no signs of life apart from a bit of agricultural clutter in the yard.
All chatting reduced to whisper level as we approached. Inside, with the heater switched on, we stripped off our layers of outer clothing and settled down to wait for dusk. The hide had windows back and front, with a wooden divider running down the centre and blackout curtains at both ends. There were enough stools and plastic chairs for us all to sit, although Mick, who was on a repeat visit to the Dusk Watch, remarked that we wouldn’t be sitting for long if any wildlife turned up.
John, our Speyside Wildlife guide, cautioned about keeping our voices down and not leaving things lying around that could become trip hazards when it got dark. Then he slipped out to position an egg in the fork of a strategically placed tree branch outside the back windows, and daub honey in blobs along the bark. He scattered peanuts underneath, as well as on the other side of the hide where large flat-topped stones had been positioned close to the glass.
Leading away from the back of the building was a narrow path snaking along a grassy ridge to a stand of trees. The trail had presumably been created by the frequent passage of clawed feet, so this was where I focussed my attention, although it was still too light to expect the appearance of the pine martens and badgers we had come to see.
A pair of mallards arrived to entertain us. It was prime mating season and the drake was intent on forcing his attentions on the less-than-cooperative duck. John said that on a previous evening the drake, distracted by his amorous intentions, had rather riskily got quite close to a pine marten. He got away with it, but an adult marten would be more than capable of taking on a duck. Luckily for this mallard, the lure of John's tasty offerings were the greater draw.
It got steadily darker and harder to focus beyond the subdued outside lighting. Nevertheless, sharp-eyed Tony spotted movement on the ridge. A young female pine marten was scurrying along the thin line of flattened grass. She disappeared under the hide momentarily and then speedily climbed the tree branch to grasp the egg in her mouth and rush away with it. John explained that she may well cash the egg for later and return quickly for the other, less portable treats.
However, there was a long pause and a growing suspicion that the marten had stopped to devour her prize this time round. Hearts sank at the prospect of it being our only sighting of the night, before Tony once again spotted movement. This time the marten ran straight to the branch to sniff out the sticky honey. It was the real start to the evening’s show.
As we got as close to the glass as we dared, John quietly described the characteristics of a pine marten. A formidable predator with sharp teeth and claws, it enjoys a varied diet of small mammals, fish, insects, nuts, eggs, fungi and berries, not forgetting the peanut butter, honey and jam sandwiches that humans provide.
The pine martens that visit the hide on the Rothiemurchus estate, have been identified individually by their unique vanilla patches in the toffee-coloured fur of their chests. The animal we were watching was the daughter of one of the regulars, born the previous spring. Pine martens have a curious method of reproduction in that the male and female can mate any time between July and September but, no matter when the mating takes place, the pregnancy does not develop until the following January. This ensures that the kits are not born until late March or April and so have the best possible chance in life, with months of warmer weather and plentiful food before the harsh Highland winter arrives.
Our teenage marten had her fill of honey and ran round to the front of the hide to give us an even closer look at her as she nibbled on some peanuts. Although she was constantly on the alert, the double glazing and the outward-facing lights kept us concealed even though she was within three feet of us.
Eventually, though, even a young marten’s appetite can be sated and as suddenly as she had arrived, she headed off back into the woods.
Cue the badgers, who you might have thought had been waiting round the corner for the pine marten’s departure. First a female appeared, showing some signs of battle in the scars on one side of her face. John said that there were often squabbles in a sett that resulted in injuries. As close as we were to the foraging female, we could see that the tough front claws used for digging could become quite effective weapons. According to John, because of those strong claws badgers are one of the few predators that can take on a hedgehog.
The female was joined by a male, with slightly darker colouring. The Scottish badger is smaller than its English cousin and, if these animals were anything to judge by, the fur is more lightly marked. Their eyesight is poor, but we could see that their sensitive noses didn’t miss a trace of a peanut as they meticulously hoovered up every one between them. When the nuts were almost gone from under the tree branch we humans decamped to the other side of the hide, hoping that the pair would also move round. In the event, only one of them did – the female – again delicately picking up peanuts with her slightly overshot muzzle. When she had had her fill and had bumbled off into the darkness, we took our cue to sneak out of the hide and make our way home, to look up more about the Mustelid family and appreciate what we had been so lucky to see close at hand.
For more information about Dusk Watch visit www.speysidewildlife.co.uk