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 had visited this area before but the trip had been thwarted by relentless rain and poor sightings. This time I was hoping for better success. As I drove north the temperature on the car thermometer dropped dramatically. Then it started to rain and I began to have serious misgivings. But at the cottage that I had booked, I was told that that if I put food on the table on the front deck the pine martens would come that evening.
I had brought an entire Landrover full of cameras, lighting, camera traps, surveillance cameras, TV monitors, hides, tripods, flash guns, tools and torches. I had even strapped some small tree trunks to the roof which I hoped the pine martens would pose on. As I began unloading the car I couldn’t help but pause to admire the stunning view of Loch Sunart and the Isle of Canna that stretched before the cottage. All I needed was a pine marten! I put a small dollop of peanut butter on the table and positioned my tree trunk props 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.
|Large female. Note the non-retractable claws|
She was just five feet away from me. I froze, watching her through the French windows. This was the best view I had ever had of a pine marten. A chocolate brown body, yellow bib and long bushy tail are the first things you notice about a pine marten. But I was transfixed by this female’s huge feet as she bounded around the deck. These were pristine, white, with sharp catlike claws that were built for climbing. These claws are non-retractable so when pine martens are not climbing, they have to walk on their pads making them look unusually prominent.
It was a promising start. I rushed about setting up my cameras and props so that I would 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.
|The female kit: her yellow bib is distinctive.|
Suddenly two pine martens came running across the grass and climbed straight on to a rock. These two were smaller than the female I had seen earlier and had fuzzier coats. I realised these were kits, a male and a female, as 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. I watched them until gone midnight.
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.
|Red deer enjoying the treats left for the pine martens|
A hedgehog had also found the food. Just as I was beginning to worry that there wouldn’t be any left the pine martens turned up - first the female, then the two kits. I watched them for over 4 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. Most days I had wall to wall sunshine, but I did get three sightings of the pine martens in good light. I was so pleased, but there was one thing missing – I had yet to see the male. He was the missing piece of the jigsaw.
On my third day an adult male pine marten in his prime visited my tree trunks at 6am. He was much larger than the female, as big as a large cat, and remarkably agile for his size. I was delighted.
And, on the fourth day I was rewarded with some fascinating behaviour between the male and female too. The male arrived and climbed up a dead oak tree, followed soon after by the female who headed straight up to join him. I could hear them chittering to one another. She climbed over him and then under his legs, brushing her body against his.
|Male and female together: their social interaction was closer in character to that of badgers.|
They then fed peacefully alongside one another. Once they had finished they both 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’. After this she rubbed her cheeks in a patch of soft moss and I wondered if she was marking the area with her scent.
The male was significantly bigger than she was and they appeared to have a strong bond.
Pine martens are mustelids, a group of mammals that also includes badgers, otters, stoats and weasels, and it was interesting to notice that although they look similar to stoats or weasels their behaviour and social structure seemed closer to that of badgers. Their diet was also similar to a badger’s in that they are omnivorous and eat a selection of berries, fruit, fungi and small birds and mammals – whereas other mustelids are strictly carnivorous.
|The adult male was as big as a large cat.|
I watched as the pair ate jam and raisins for a starter and then noticed the male tug at the dead chicken chicks I had tied to my tree trunks. He tore one off and ran around the cottage to eat it under my car, this time a little less willing to feed alongside his mate. Meanwhile the female chased him back and forth trying to steal the chick from him.
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, effortlessly, down again - wrapping his back legs around the vertical trunk. Like squirrels, a pine marten’s legs are prehensile, meaning they can wrap around an object, and their feet actually rotate at the ankle so that they can dig their claws in on the way down.
|The male kit in the rain.|
|Clambering up tree trunks I brought from Yorkshire to use as props.|
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 three feet away. It was an amazing end to a wonderful trip.