The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 8.8.17

on .

As I remember, September always used to be regarded as the harvest month. After all that is when the harvest moon shines down upon us and when traditionally, harvest home happened. These days however, a combination of faster ripening crops and global warming has perhaps been at the root of earlier and earlier harvests. Science, combined with engineering has changed farming almost beyond recognition in my lifetime.

Harvest time during my youth, was a time when country folk came together to bring in the year's crops. Of course, then the harvest was extremely labour intensive with all hands required to complete this vital task! Now instead, it is machine intensive! In these next few weeks, dinosaur-like combines will be unleashed to invade the golden fields and chomp their way through newly ripened crops, disgorging the bi-product of straw behind them. It will all seem very Jurassic!

In this highly mechanised age, when drones and even GPS satellites can help pinpoint exactly where fertilisers or pesticides are needed in a field, whilst farming is perhaps physically less taxing, it is still very dependent upon elements that we can't control, like the weather. Thus, a summer, which at one time had seemed full of promise, has rather fizzled out. So as harvest time becomes more imminent, the reluctance of the jet stream to move critically further north in order to allow high pressure to establish itself, has resulted in a succession of rain-inducing fronts careering in from the Atlantic.

Most of our migratory birds were happily able, as it were, to make hay whilst the sun shone and get on with the main purpose of their epic journeys from Africa to produce and nurture new generations. Soon, both parents and offspring will answer to impelling instinct and inevitably turn their heads to the south and begin their epic journeys to the Dark Continent. For the parent birds, this will be this year's return leg whilst the youngsters take on this massive challenge for the first time in their short lives. Now, vitally therefore all these long distance travellers must reap their own harvests, mostly of insects. Crucially, during these next few weeks, as soon as they have completed the acquisition of a new set of clothes, they must eat and eat and eat!

Whilst our cereal harvest is coming in earlier, so, too, it seems, is the natural harvest. I have been watching the rowan berries here during the past few weeks. They have progressed rapidly from green to orange and now, in early August, they are red. And, I am not alone in observing this natural harvest ripen. As I write, increasing numbers of starlings, blackbirds and song thrushes are arriving among the clusters of ripening berries. This is their harvest and increasingly they will feast on the berries as they seek to give themselves a racing start for shortening days, which even now are causing our evenings to 'draw in'.

In neighbouring hedgerows, other harvests are also ripening. This looks likely to be a bumper year for brambles although the berries as yet remain stubbornly green, it will be a few weeks before eager bramble pickers will be seen patrolling hedges in search of these highly desirable, rich, bulbous fruits. And they will not be alone either. Foxes, with an undeserved reputation for killing and eating lambs, poultry and game birds by the thousand, are also eager consumers of brambles. So, too, are the new generations of pine marten.

The spread of pine marten across this area and indeed across Scotland as a whole, not to mention their advance in England and Wales over the past number of years which has been a remarkable story. Hereabouts, their re-establishment has seen an amazing transition in squirrel populations. Where once grey squirrels abounded, now there are none. Instead, the void has been filled by native red squirrels. The alien greys, introduced to Scotland from America in the early years of the twentieth century, had found conditions here very much to their liking. Consequently, during the last century, they had very successfully colonised many parts of lowland Scotland, very much to the exclusion of those native reds.

It is not thought that grey squirrels attacked and killed the smaller reds. Rather that they were more avaricious competitors for food sources. Furthermore, they carry a disease known as 'squirrel pox' to which they are resistant but which red squirrels are not. But, grey squirrels are on average, almost twice the weight of reds. Thus, they are nowhere near as agile, nor, because of their greater weight, are they able to evade predators such as martens by retreating to outer branches, which cannot bear the marten's weight. Red squirrels, although from time to time inevitably falling victim to martens, are nevertheless able to escape their clutches through their lighter weight and their greater agility.

When, in previous times, for example in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, martens were present in this airt, there would of course, have been no grey squirrels present. So, imagine the delight of the new generation of pine marten, when they found their way back into this landscape after a long absence, to discover grey squirrels in such abundance. Lots of food that was, compared with red squirrels, much easier to catch and which when hunted down, also provided much better eating!

Hence, pine marten have prospered and now turn up in some quite unexpected places. And as a bonus, where those grey squirrels once held sway, instead red squirrels have made a real come back. I find it mildly amusing that many wildlife books tell us that pine marten are extremely shy creatures and so very difficult to see. Perhaps that appeared to be the case when they were so scarce but it should be remembered that when man's hand was firmly set against predators of any kind, pine marten were enthusiastically pursued, prodded from the shelter of trees with long poles and fallen upon by dogs. Therefore, pine marten had every reason to avoid the presence of human kind.

However, the new generations seem to have developed a different relationship with us for I know of many instances where martens have set up home in the roof space of houses. One such 'squat' happened in the house of a friend. Over the period of that summer, we learned that a pine marten harvest also includes strawberry jam sandwiches, peanut butter and the odd domestic egg or three as well as small mammals, the young of nesting birds and when the time comes, the fruits of our hedgerows!

Furthermore, they will be on the lookout for those red squirrels, which during the next few weeks will be so focussed on bringing in their own harvests of nuts, beech-mast and seeds, that their guards may just be down. Harvest time is coming for all sorts of creatures great and small!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods