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