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

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 5.12.17

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Perhaps corruption is part of the human psyche but every time I read of funds being collected for worthy causes, which somehow are filtered into the pockets of corrupt officials, I feel greatly saddened. Yet I suppose it is true that mankind has survived in this world by his opportunism. The gravy trains are approaching the station ... and there are plenty of people waiting to board them!

Mind you, we are not the only ones looking for that train. Take urban foxes. They survive by exploiting our profligacy. They live off the remains of take-aways, our cast-offs and whatever else they can find in their urban environment. Leave doors or even windows open on those sultry summer days and you cannot blame a fox for sneaking in and taking whatever it can find, from tables, work surfaces and so on. It makes no difference to the fox. And I've seen for myself, just how forward urban foxes can be ... scratching at French windows in their pleas to be fed!

I was amused a few weeks ago to read of the old Brock badger that barged its way through a cat flap, consumed a dog bowl full of food and then decided to have a nap in the absent pooch's bed. It took a very patient SSPCA Inspector some time to persuade it to wake up and return quietly to the great outdoors whence it had come.

I conclude that animals too therefore all have a sharp eye open for that gravy train, in whatever form it comes. As some readers will know to their cost, roe deer have an appetite for roses and can thus be very destructive of the green fingered labours of many a gardener. I remember years ago, searching an urban woodland in vain for roe deer kids, after their mother had been shot by an irate gardener, because she had entered his garden and consumed his roses. I expect the kids duly perished!

It is sometimes surprising how bold animals, whose nature may be described as timid, can sometimes be. Otters are quite hard to spot in any circumstances but some years ago I was made aware of a gentleman who had exploited a burn running through his garden, which lay on the edge of a village, to dig a large pond. He duly stocked his new pond with trout and liked nothing better than to saunter out into his garden and cast a line or two in order to enjoy trout for breakfast!

It was the perfect answer to the man's desire - until out of the blue, his hopes were suddenly dashed, his private fishery was discovered by a pair of otters! Soon, there were no fish left! Inland trout fisheries up and down the country are of course, familiar with the exploitation of their trout stocks by otters and indeed by herons too. Indeed, many a garden fish-pond has been emptied of its scaly occupants, by herons and there are a number of devices available to defend against such predation. In contrast a few days ago, I watched one of the world's greatest exploiters of stocked fish, arrive on the waters of our loch and immediately arc below the surface to begin its instant search for fish. It was of course, a cormorant, not the favourite bird of most fisher folk of my acquaintance!

However, an animal with which we are becoming increasingly familiar in these parts is the pine marten. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine went to live in such isolation that he was only able to reach 'civilisation' by either walking through several miles of forest or by taking his boat some distance down the sea-loch beside which he dwelt. His isolation enabled him to pen several books about the wildlife of his wild, west highland existence.

What intrigued many of his readers were his tales of the pine marten he regularly entertained in his kitchen, inducing them to throw off their normal shyness by proffering them strawberry jam and peanut butter sandwiches. It was all the more intriguing then because at that stage pine marten had not yet reached these parts. They remained quite rare animals of the western and northern highlands but had not yet spread their wings.

Pine marten are of course, extremely arboreal animals and during that period running up to the First World War, in an era in which the growth of the sporting estate really flourished, pine marten were cruelly pursued and persecuted. Parties of hunters would take up the chase, try and isolate the animals in patches of trees and then literally burn them out with blazing lumps of straw until the marten were forced to vacate the trees. And of course, waiting for them below, were packs of ravening dogs! Unsurprisingly at that time populations of pine marten consequently declined rapidly, with only a few surviving in remote glens. However the Wildlife Act of 1982 at last gave them the protection they badly needed.

Slowly but surely pine marten populations began to grown and as they grew, they expanded their territory southwards. Ardnamurchan was one of their strongholds and I well remember seeing them there. I also enjoyed good sightings of them in the Gairloch area. Then, to my amazement, I began seeing them in this airt. It is perhaps twenty years ago since I first started seeing them in this part of the world.

I heard that a pair had tried to set up home in the roof of a toilet block on a nearby caravan park. Then I was informed of a pine marten, which regularly made its way through a cat flap in the door of a fairly remote cottage, in order to steal the food put down for the household moggie. Thankfully the householder was reasonably tolerant to the marten invasion. And then a year or two ago, a pair of pine marten discovered a tiny gap through which they could climb in order to gain access to the roof space of an isolated house belonging to friends. Significantly, adjacent to the house was a lovely patch of forest with lots of Scots Pine.

Thereafter, we enjoyed some wonderful pine marten watching hours. The regular trek of the female marten was from the hole in the roof on to the roof of the conservatory, a trot along the said roof until the edge was reached, then down the support pole, up on to the picnic table. This was where our friend loaded the gravy train with ... peanut butter sandwiches, jam sandwiches and raw eggs in the shell.

If ever a pine marten had jumped upon a gravy train, this was it. And as her kits grew, so they too followed the same route and the same routine. Of course, all this benefaction gave them the very best start in life. They were well fed and doubtless at night tucked up nice and warm in that roof space. Eventually, as is their wont, mother pine marten took off with her kits, probably into the rather more natural environment of that nearby wood. Friends wisely had the hole sealed but that was for many of us, 'the pine marten summer'.

Incidentally, over the years, since I saw that first marten here, the grey squirrels that were once so dominant here, have gone - completely! Now our native reds reign supreme. That, I'm sure, too, is absolutely down to predation by those gravy train exploiting pine marten!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods