Pine Martens and Digestives

I have not missed a visit to the Scottish mountains in the last ten years. Choosing where to go each time could have been fraught with difficulty, but becoming an accidental Munro Bagger gives a gentle discipline to such dilemmas. I stay close to the Munros I have yet to bagand there are lots still waiting close to one of my bases near the Kyle of Lochalsh – Craig Highland Farm. This steading clings to wooded slopes overlooking Loch Carron and is sheltered by prevailing westerlies by the Plockton headland. I discovered Craig many years back and it has now become my favourite base in the Western Highlands. Surrounding the ownerscottage is a working farm, interspersed with a scattering of wooden lodges and stone cottages. The property is tight to the shore of the tidal loch, reached by crossing the Kyle of Lochalsh to Inversess railway line, and takes in the little wooded Eilean na Creige Duibhe. From the vantage point of the lodges one has tremendous views across to the far side of Loch Carron and even sight of the road winding up Bealach na Bà towards Applecross.

Suffice to say, there are many birds and beasts to see around the farm and across the loch, so the lack of WiFi or television becomes an irrelevance. Outside the windows, locally purchased bird food entices all the common species including siskins and great spotted woodpeckers. At dusk the bats come out whilst the birds still feed, but it is as darkness falls that the farm comes into its own. These woods are home to pine martens.

The pine marten is that large and mysterious member of the Mustelid (weasel) family one sees on Springwatch and in nature books, decked out in thick red-brown fur with a creamy shirt front. Its preferred habitat is thick woodland or rocky hillsides, with dens frequently made in hollow logs or rock crevices, but also in rabbit burrows or the roofs of old buildings. They are nocturnal omnivores, eating anything from squirrels and beetles, to fruit and digestive biscuits. Anyone who loves natural history would have the pine marten as a must seespecies, but they are so elusive they have to be sought out. Craig is right in the middle of their expanding Scottish stronghold, so sightings are frequent to the point of being guaranteed, if one is patient.

With my Passepartout I have seen them trot across the road as Ive driven slowly to and from the farm, but to entice them the ideal bait is peanut butter or jam spread liberally on digestive biscuits. With such strategically placed comestibles outside your window at dusk, it is time to sit back and wait. Typically little voles and woodmice may come out for a nibble, whiskers trembling, eyes bright, their bodies tensed to dash for cover. Bats dip into view and the sinister, dark upon dark silhouette of a tawny owl may drift over. Pine martens never hint at appearing, they just arrive in a hefty, brazened, spectacular materialisation.

It is not until one gets a windowpanes thickness from a pine marten that you realise how heart-stoppingly powerful and beautiful they are. Dense, rich fur in ranging from deep chocolate to foxy red, the creamy bib with little spots unique in each individual. A teddy-bear head, but more Steiff and feline, than round and cuddly. The legs are thick and muscular with large, strong, clawed paws, ideal for climbing. Indeed they are reminiscent of an oriental short-hair cat, not unlike my Passepartouts house cat at home. Such is the likeness that I once, with a spoonerismic slip, called this black, needy creature Cyrilinstead of her correct apellation, Cilla, and now pine martens have become Pine Cyrils as an accidental but accurate application of that simile.

Once discovered the pine marten will grab a fully loaded digestive and run off to consume out of sight, or, if the watcher is very lucky, eat it there and then in the torchlight. Weve been lucky enough to see single adults and, occasionally a female with a couple of half-grown kits. They live around Craig and are part of the farms ecosystem. Even though they will kill and devour any chicken, duck or guineafowl left out after curfew, they are welcomed, sometimes with a curse, but never with cruelty.

Thus we will return armed with digestives and peanut butter knowing the pine martens will show up. You may note that Ive stopped using jam – it may be bad for their ferocious, shiny teeth…

Pine-Marten-Paul-Comerford
Too Sweet. Martes martes, The European pine marten. Photo by Paul Comerford

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