RE­TURN TO FORM

John Lis­ter-Kaye has been in­stru­men­tal in the resur­gence of the pine marten

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS - WORDS POLLY PULLAR

In­creas­ingly I hear com­plaints about there be­ing too many buz­zards or other rap­tors, or that num­bers of badgers or pine martens are too high. The first pine marten I ever saw was dur­ing my child­hood when my par­ents owned the Kil­choan Ho­tel in Ard­na­mur­chan.

One wild evening the door of the pub­lic bar blew open and a man came in car­ry­ing a large fish­ing bag. In it there was a salmon wrapped in newspaper that he gave to mum with a big wink. I heard laugh­ing and jok­ing, and nu­mer­ous ques­tions about the ori­gins of the freshly-caught sil­vered beauty. Some things are best left unan­swered, be­sides the truth would have been like elas­tic.

He had some­thing else in the bag too, also wrapped up in newspaper. He put it on one of the bar ta­bles for ev­ery­one to ex­am­ine. I knew about fer­rets as I had been out rab­bit­ing, but this an­i­mal, though of sim­i­lar size, had a lux­u­ri­ant co­coa-coloured pelt, and yel­low-ochre patch be­neath its throat. Its eyes were glazed and dull, and its mouth was slightly open, re­veal­ing sharp lit­tle teeth, its lips curled back in a macabre death smirk.

The un­for­tu­nate beast had been caught in a snare. I felt sad­ness be­cause it ap­peared so per­fect, and now it was dead. It was de­scribed as a marten cat, a rare crea­ture that was sel­dom seen in Ard­na­mur­chan at the end of the 1960s. Yet it must have been there pre­vi­ously, and in­deed in healthy num­bers, for the stunted At­lantic oak­woods that form a syl­van fringe around the penin­sula pro­vide the ideal habi­tat for myr­iad crea­tures, par­tic­u­larly the pine marten. There were com­ments re­gard­ing its soft, dense fur, and I no­ticed that un­like the dead foxes I had seen in the back of crofters’ vans, and my fer­rets, it had no scent. I have never for­got­ten that first view and have been in­trigued by pine martens ever since.

Un­like other mustelids the pine marten’s fur is in­deed free of pun­gent aroma, which un­for­tu­nately made it highly sought-af­ter. But it was also killed in vast num­bers due to its be­hav­iour. Nick­named ‘the scourge of the glens’ dur­ing Vic­to­rian times, the pine marten was seen as a de­testable fiend, a killer of game birds and poul­try. Game records from es­tates all over the High­lands re­veal as­ton­ish­ing num­bers of ‘marten cats’ in their de­press­ing tal­lies. These culls were re­spon­si­ble for the loss of species on a gut-wrench­ing scale.

There were fal­la­cious sto­ries of sheep killing too. Eye­wit­nesses claimed to have seen pine martens rip­ping the throats out of ewes, and then wrestling the help­less beasts to the ground to fin­ish them off. I am not sure what these eye­wit­nesses were im­bib­ing, but their tales seem myth­i­cal. Per­haps the il­le­gal stills op­er­at­ing all over the High­lands pro­duced liquor of hal­lu­cino­genic po­tency? Or per­haps wit­nesses to pine marten ter­ror­ist at­tacks on sheep had con­sumed magic mush­rooms?

The pine marten is in­deed a killer, but not of sheep. Since the Wildlife and Coun­try­side Act of 1981 pro­tected it, it has grad­u­ally re-colonised many of its pre­vi­ous stronghold­s, though sadly it still comes into con­flict with game.

As its num­bers have steadily risen, I have en­joyed learn­ing about and watch­ing this mer­cu­rial mustelid. I also ap­pre­ci­ate that it is a Jekyll and Hyde – in­deed we have wit­nessed its dev­as­tat­ing be­hav­iour in the hen­house.

A recent at­mo­spheric en­counter with two war­ring pine martens high in crags on the north side of Loch Ma­ree dur­ing heavy rain left me high for days. Their loud screams, pos­tur­ings, and yat­ter­ing cries as they hurled ob­scen­i­ties at one an­other in wild chase through wind-honed pines was a drama I will al­ways re­mem­ber.

At Ai­gas Field Cen­tre, near Beauly, guests revel in their pine marten sight­ings and travel from great dis­tances in the hope they will be lucky; they are sel­dom dis­ap­pointed. A gen­tle breeze rip­ples the wa­ters of the loch as reeds sway and lilies waltz over the darken-

ing sur­face. There are beavers here, their large lodges sil­hou­et­ted against the bruised shad­ows of dusk. A roe doe passes, and a robin ticks har­mo­niously with a wren.

In a hide in the midst of the ad­ja­cent wood, I sit in si­lence as John Lis­ter-Kaye, a man who has ded­i­cated his life to nat­u­ral his­tory, en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy mak­ing and ed­u­ca­tion, puts out peanut but­ter and other tempt­ing morsels for a host of noc­tur­nal visi­tors. I want to know, too, what he thinks about the in­crease and spread of the pine marten. Does he, like me, feel that there are cer­tainly not too many?

For the past 40 years, John, his wife Lucy, and var­i­ous mem­bers of their fam­ily, have turned t he once-col­laps­ing shoot­ing lodge, the House of Ai­gas, into the best field cen­tre in the coun­try. Guests flock here to par­take in a wealth of cour­ses to learn about and rel­ish the wildlife and un­sur­passed scenery of the area, whilst Ai­gas’ ex­tra­or­di­nary ranger train­ing and ed­u­ca­tional pro­grammes are re­spon­si­ble for the spawn­ing of many skilled naturalist­s. Over 5,000 school chil­dren ben­e­fit from Ai­gas’ unique ‘Na­ture­days’ an­nu­ally.

‘In 1976 when I first ac­quired Ai­gas we didn’t see pine martens,’ John says. ‘A Forestry Com­mis­sion keeper at that time killed ev­ery­thing and it was not un­til around 1982 that things be­gan to change. In 1983 it was ex­cit­ing to find a den in one of the sheds, and soon I saw wob­bly young kits emerg­ing. Then there were in­creased sight­ings over the com­ing years.

‘I had been talk­ing to David Bal­harry of Tomich who sug­gested we bait with jam and peanut but­ter. Pine martens be­gan to ap­pear al­most nightly at our hides, to­gether with badgers and foxes.

‘For a while dur­ing the 1980s I wit­nessed an in­crease in bio­di­ver­sity, and bird life in­cluded nu­mer­ous curlew, golden plover, snipe and woodcock, as well as red­shank, and oys­ter­catcher. By the 1990s, con­versely, I be­gan to no­tice a vis­i­ble de­cline. As an ecol­o­gist, I be­lieve that things can cope with one or two mi­nor changes, but not more.

‘The waders have all but gone from the fields by the River Beauly, the habi­tat has al­tered so much so that there are lit­tle or no in­ver­te­brates, and our once-thriv­ing rook­ery is now largely silent; it’s an ap­palling state of af­fairs. Pine martens do bet­ter sim­ply be­cause theirs is a catholic diet and they adapt far more eas­ily, but the same can­not be said for many other species.’

The wood dark­ens. A dry twig snaps. A nu­bile fe­male pine marten bounds onto fallen trees and starts to feed. Her face is fox-like, the ears erect and alert. A spot­light il­lu­mi­nates her mag­nif­i­cent pelt, the strong broad ar­bo­real feet, claws white as if nail var­nished, and the unique yel­low throat patch stip­pled with brown. She is per­fect. Later a boar bad­ger joins her. The bad­ger clam­bers up and puts his head into a hol­low log stuffed with food, and the pine marten melds into the wood­land as silently as she ap­peared.

In his new mem­oir, The Dun Cow Rib, John exquisitel­y ex­plores the story of his very nat­u­ral child­hood and the in­flu­ences that led him to be­com­ing one of Scot­land’s finest liv­ing naturalist­s, com­mit­ted to na­ture con­ser­va­tion and ed­u­ca­tion. For a man who un­der­stands the im­por­tance of preda­tor-prey re­la­tion­ships, the need for us to take stock and re­alise that ev­ery­thing is linked to some­thing else, and the vi­tal im­por­tance of habi­tat restora­tion, the pine marten is a vi­tal el­e­ment to that per­fect web.

‘It re­mains a very rare mem­ber of our Bri­tish fauna,’ he says. ‘To recover prop­erly it needs the sanc­tu­ary of its High­land strong­hold. If we are to re­store red squir­rels we need pine martens to see off the greys.’

‘Pine martens be­gan to ap­pear al­most nightly at our hides, to­gether with badgers and foxes’

Top left: John Lis­ter-Kaye’s home, Ai­gas, on a win­ter day. Top right: A pine marten peers through a fence. Be­low right: A pine marten with its kill in the snow.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.