Polly Pullar

As the once rare pine marten makes a come­back, Polly Pullar re­tains hope for the di­ver­sity of Scotland’s nat­u­ral world

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Renowned writer, pho­tog­ra­pher, nat­u­ral­ist and wildlife re­ha­bil­i­ta­tor with a pas­sion for the nat­u­ral world. Polly has con­trib­uted to The Scots Mag­a­zine for 30 years and is the au­thor of six books, in­clud­ing the re­cent The Red Squir­rel – A Fu­ture In The For­est, with pho­tog­ra­pher Neil Mcin­tyre. In this is­sue, Polly goes look­ing for pine martens on Loch Su­nart.

IN the still of an evening I sit by the shore as Loch Su­nart sways sooth­ingly. I hear the calls of curlews and the haunt­ing cry of a dis­tant red-throated diver. I watch as a grey seal ap­pears – the watched ob­serves the watcher, as well as the other way around. It is bot­tling and snort­ing in sea that fizzes with driz­zle, a thin, wa­tery rain­bow as its back­drop. Salty droplets cling to its whiskered face as it ex­hales loudly, pok­ing its dark head up even fur­ther, the bet­ter to see me.

The sun slips reluc­tantly into its bed over an an­cient swathe of wood­land or­nate with plant riches, a nat­u­ral king­dom of im­mea­sur­able value. Close by me, the tor­tured form of an oak has pushed out of a fis­sure in a mas­sive bar­na­cle-cov­ered rock cleft. Now al­most hor­i­zon­tal, it has seen a thou­sand sun­sets over Mull, Coll and Tiree. It is no less im­pres­sive than its gi­gan­tic English park­land coun­ter­parts – even more per­haps, tena­ciously clutch­ing as it does to suc­cour be­tween a rock and a hard place. This is Scotland’s rain for­est, the At­lantic oak­woods of the western seaboard.

The seal has be­come bored with me and swum off. I sit a while longer, not want­ing to stir; the af­ter­noon is drowsy with only the whis­per of a vole in the grasses.

Then I catch a move­ment. Some­thing brown and ex­u­ber­ant is busy on the edge of my view­point, dart­ing about. It van­ishes in the wav­ing flag iris on the shore’s edge. I wait. A male stonechat with his bram­ble-black eyes and dark hood alights on a fox­glove. I raise my binoc­u­lars, and there be­hind him is an­other flurry of ac­tiv­ity. A curvy form dances out into the open, wear­ing a coat of mocha with a pris­tine yel­low-cream bib. It is play­ing with some­thing, rub­bing its elas­tic body over it. It picks it up in its mouth and throws it into the air, then leaps to catch it be­fore pirou­et­ting on to a rock. It turns and stands sil­hou­et­ted against the low light – a pine marten with a vole. As quickly as it ap­peared it melts silently into the shad­ows.

Fleet­ing vi­gnettes like this, re­veal­ing the life of the pine marten and the crea­tures that share its habi­tat, have ab­sorbed me since child­hood, though 50 years ago the pine marten was an ex­ceed­ingly rare sight.

My story of the pine marten re­veals much about the wildlife that shares the habi­tat with this mer­cu­rial mustelid. The ob­ser­va­tions of a ded­i­cated cou­ple, Les and Chris Humphreys, who have turned their gar­den on the shores of Loch Su­nart over en­tirely to martens, and

“As quickly as it ap­peared, it melts into the shad­ows”

sub­se­quently a host of other fauna, have opened up im­por­tant fresh in­sights while re­veal­ing a fab­u­lous world that in­cludes badgers, ot­ters, hedge­hogs, foxes, voles, mice, rep­tiles and am­phib­ians, as well as a bur­geon­ing list of birdlife.

Over the past 14 years, my close friend­ship with them has added an­other as­pect to my so­journs in Ard­na­mur­chan. While their gar­den is bugged from end to end, the re­sult­ing cam­era footage and their metic­u­lous di­aries have proved deeply ab­sorb­ing – on oc­ca­sion, hi­lar­i­ously amus­ing – and have given me a rare op­por­tu­nity to fold the story of their lives with martens into my own.

As a nat­u­ral­ist, I have learnt that while I may set out to look for a par­tic­u­lar bird or an­i­mal, of­ten I will be side-tracked by some­thing dif­fer­ent al­to­gether – a flush 

Les and Chris have opened up their gar­den to the pine marten

of flow­ers I have never no­ticed be­fore; the colour and de­tail of tiny lichens and mosses grow­ing on a stump; the fre­netic be­hav­iour of a fam­ily of wa­ter shrews for­ag­ing for bounc­ing flies in rot­ting sea­weed be­side the sea; a fox hunting voles in tawny tus­sock grasses on a wind-scoured hill­side; or the places where badgers have been dig­ging out a wasps’ nest, their claw marks like map con­tours on bare earth. I have been cap­ti­vated by the dance of dam­sel­flies dressed in shot-silk gleam­ing turquoise be­side a fast flow­ing burn.

Such mo­ments are vi­tal to the habi­tat re-colonised by the marten. The pine marten’s col­lec­tive noun is a “rich­ness”, and though the marten is the thread that binds my book, the term “rich­ness” high­lights the di­ver­sity of my me­an­der­ings.

Though we have thriv­ing pop­u­la­tions of martens in High­land Perthshire where I live, it seems apt that while glean­ing more in­sight into their fas­ci­nat­ing lives, my finest en­coun­ters have been in Ard­na­mur­chan – Bri­tain’s most west­erly main­land penin­sula. It is the place I re­gard as home, a place where my heart is firmly an­chored.

When I drive on to the penin­sula off the Cor­ran Ferry I am over­whelmed with child­like ex­cite­ment, and, as I travel slowly around the dozens of sharp bends and switch­backs, I catch a glimpse of yet an­other achingly beau­ti­ful view.

It may be sim­ply the fleet­ing, low sprint of a spar­rowhawk as it bolts over the top of a tou­sle of gorse bushes lat­ticed with dewy spi­ders’ webs. Or lis­ten­ing to cuckoo calls in a hid­den oak glade over­flow­ing with poly­pody ferns, and wood anemones. It is the dis­cov­ery of the waxy white­ness of tall grass-of-par­nas­sus flow­ers, their del­i­cate green veins shin­ing from out of the sourest of bogs. It is ly­ing on my stom­ach on the cliffs on a frosty af­ter­noon watch­ing ot­ters lithely rolling over in a for­est of waltz­ing bronze kelp spot-lit by the last apri­cot glow of the sun. Or stand­ing on a mar­ram fringed head­land, watch­ing a pod of com­mon dol­phins per­form­ing oceanic cir­cus tricks.

It is walk­ing through the penin­sula’s glens and rest­ing on tum­bling stones feel­ing the melan­choly and des­o­la­tion among the scat­tered ru­ins of long-va­cated sheil­ings. It is

strug­gling against the el­e­ments to stand on Ben Hiant’s craggy sum­mit in­hal­ing a 360-de­gree panorama of is­lands and moun­tains, while watch­ing ravens tum­bling off its dizzy­ing cliffs to frolic in the air cur­rents. It is watch­ing a pine marten at dusk greed­ily gorg­ing on rowan­ber­ries obliv­i­ous to my pres­ence.

This is why my heart lies in this vis­ceral land and seascape. Per­haps it is the edgi­ness that ac­com­pa­nies ex­pe­ri­enc­ing such wild beauty, know­ing the im­por­tance of safe­guard­ing the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment while be­ing filled with con­cern for its very fragility – and fre­quently doubt­ing that we are ca­pa­ble guardians.

Thanks to time spent with Les and Chris Humphreys, this has been a jour­ney where I have come to know and love this glo­ri­ous mem­ber of the weasel fam­ily a lit­tle bet­ter. At last, af­ter cen­turies of ruth­less per­se­cu­tion, the pine marten with its end­less pen­chant for mis­chief has re­turned to its right­ful place as part of our fauna. 2018 marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the sea ea­gle’s ex­tinc­tion in Scotland, and we must cel­e­brate its dra­matic come­back too. De­spite the odds, we have also suc­ceeded in re­turn­ing the el­e­gant red kite and os­prey, and more re­cently the beaver. The wild­cat now needs our ur­gent help.

With re­gard to the pine marten, it is vi­tal to recog­nise that we need preda­tors just as we need prey, for only then can we hope to have a prop­erly func­tion­ing ecosys­tem. And we must never give up hope that with per­se­ver­ance we can in­deed heal the dam­age we in­flict on the nat­u­ral world. Na­ture can and will re­cover, but time is run­ning short. A Rich­ness of Martens – Wildlife Tales from Ard­na­mur­chan Polly Pullar With a fore­word by John Lis­ter-kaye. Cover by Neil Mcin­tyre and il­lus­tra­tions by Sharon Tingey. £12.99 Bir­linn pbk

Hedge­hogs are also reg­u­lar vis­i­tors to the Humphreys’ gar­den

Above: At­lantic oak­woods over­look the bay

Right: The tiny things that are vi­tal to a habi­tat

Main pic­ture: The sweep­ing bay of Ard­na­mur­chan

Above: A beau­ti­ful demoi­selle sits by the burn Left: The marten sports a dis­tinc­tive white bib

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