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

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Weekly Nature Watch 21 Nov 19

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There are so many images of Christmas these days. Once upon a time when the first Christmas cards emerged, such cards were initially love tokens. Later as the ethos of greetings cards for the Christmas festival developed, images were either of a religious nature or indeed based upon Dickensian scenes, often of horse drawn carriages arriving at well-lit wayside inns. More modern imagery seems to know no such bounds as the full gambit of graphic arts are unleashed upon the Christmas season. Today’s cards express so many different sides to Christmas but wildlife images are among the favourites.

Thus, of all the traditional images, one stands out as the perennial Christmas card image, robin redbreast. The robin is, of course, the one bird you are likely to hear carousing on Christmas Day albeit that the robin’s notional mate, Jenny Wren, is also known for its song during the depths of winter. However, robins are the real winter songsters primarily because they establish feeding territories in the winter with almost as much enthusiasm as they establish breeding territories in the spring. And song is very much about pronouncing that territorial integrity.

As said, this integrity is as vigorously defended as those spring territories and the plain fact of robin life is that they are fearsome defenders of their realms to such an extent that they are prepared to fight literally to the death in defence of them … not very Christmassy you might think! But that is the fearsome reputation of robin redbreast. No prisoners are taken! Yet there is a surprisingly gentle aspect alleged to robin behavior by none other than poet William Wordsworth who claimed that when his sister Dorothy was ill, a robin entered her bedroom, fanned her face with its wings to cool her fevered brow and sang to her. Perhaps the poet was using poetic licence? Robins may be prepared to live cheek by jowl with mankind but I doubt with such intimacy!

Robins are sometimes bold in the extreme. Many’s the gardener who has found his labours intently watched by a robin simply because he or she frequently digs up worms and insects which are soon seized by the hungry redbreast. Robins certainly know when it is of benefit to befriend mankind! That the robin has always been a blessed bird harks back to early Christianity when it was believed the robin plucked a thorn from the brow of Jesus when on the Cross, thus staining his breast red with the blood of Christ. Indeed, the caging of robins was rife in Continental Europe but it was a hobby that never took off in Britain although the keeping of other caged birds, such as goldfinches, was popular here. Indeed, there was a saying that “a robin in a cage puts all heaven in a rage.”

Yet another myth relating to the robin’s redbreast, tells us that although the wren was the ’fire-bringer’ the robin took the burning brand from the wren to bring it on the last part of its journey, singeing its breast in the process. Robins and wrens have always been closely associated and indeed, they are named in the old Christian saying, “the robin and the wren are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”

The robin, of course, famously appears in Glasgow’s coat of arms in memory of the part a robin played in the life of Glasgow’s patron saint, St Kentigern, who it is said kept a tame robin when under the tutorship of St Serf at Culross. Kentigern was a much favoured pupil who consequently incurred the jealous wrath of his fellow pupils. Indeed, so enraged were they that they killed the robin but St Kentigern restored the bird to life. Hence, the ‘robin proper’ in the city’s coat of arms.

The early use of robins on those first Christmas cards also led to the very first postmen being called ‘robins’ on account of the fact that they were dressed in bright vermillion coloured waistcoats. Today’s posties wear red anoraks maintaining the red tradition. But then there’s a lot of red about at Christmas including Santa! A lot of children will be thinking of that gentleman over Christmas and perhaps pinning their hopes upon him. His origins are obscure but seem on balance, to originate from a Russian philanthropist who delivered presents from his reindeer drawn sledge for all the children across a snowy Russia.

So, it’s Christmas. A time when we make contact with friends old and new through the myriad of cards that will come showering through our letter-boxes. It is perhaps a time for reflection and very much a time for generosity of thought. No doubt a lot of children will be eagerly exploring their stockings and pillowcases for those much-wanted presents but we also need to think of those for whom Christmas simply doesn’t happen, the old and lonely, the homeless and the sick. For them there is a bitter irony about the ritzy glitter of the modern Christmas.

Think also of the birds. As temperatures fall and the rain comes down, natural food begins to run short. They need our help now as never before so please feed them. However, remember once you start you must keep topping the feeders up for they come to rely upon our generosity for their survival.

Such is the variety of cards these days that all manner of animals and birds make their appearance from red and roe deer to the inevitable reindeer. From blue tits to great tits and many more. One of growing popularity is the colourful goldfinch but that should come as little surprise, for goldfinches figure in many devotional paintings, particularly those featuring the Madonna and Child. Something like three quarters of European devotional paintings feature a goldfinch so is the goldfinch in danger of ousting the robin as the Christmas bird? I doubt it. Cock robin, robin redbreast, Ruddock or if you have the gaelic, broindbergh (red belly) is the one you’ll find hopping across your mantlepiece. Happy Christmas!

Weekly Nature Watch 13 Dec 2019

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Perhaps because its surface is ever changing, water has a natural attraction. There is always some movement which draws the eye. Thus, when we holiday beside the sea or on some lake-side, water and its constant movement are the attraction we will not be denied. Yet it is almost midwinter, a time when we are more likely to contemplate remaining indoors than wandering by the side of the sea or some inland lake. The attraction, however, remains, furthermore, where there is water there is also plenty of wildlife. Midwinter makes little or no difference, the daily battle to survive is a daily fact of life. It’s just that we are rather less inclined to spend time watching that battle.

The loch’s surface tells the story. There is plenty of action with ducks constantly plunging beneath the surface to explore the hidden depths and a plethora of gulls simply messing about. Yes, that surface is always on the move. One that is a constant presence cuts a different, lonelier figure but somehow, this bird seems to reign supreme. It is stoic, it is sometimes almost doleful, sometimes even sleepy. Yet in truth, it is alert and very conscious of everything going on around it, watchful and always, it appears, in charge. The heron is more or less master of all he surveys, a real survivor reliant upon a range of skills that include phenomenal eyesight and an ability to strike with the speed of a snake.

I have long admired herons. They seem to have most elements under control. I’ve watched grey herons fish the mangrove swamps of Malaysia, the waters of Zimbabwe’s lakes and the swamps of The Gambia besides seeing them here in the UK fishing coastal and inland waterways. Even in flight, although a trifle gangling with those legs trailing behind, they make their way through the squalliest of weather, hardly missing a beat of those voluminous wings. Considering their overall size, herons are remarkably light and are able to gain height rapidly, a fact which made them ideal quarries for the huntsman’s hawks when the sport of kings was so popular. Indeed, that scurrilous King of England, Henry VIII, passed a law protecting herons so that he and his hawking friends could hunt them!

However, on days such as these, when the wind takes control, herons can find life difficult. One such bird, which had been fishing in the lea of loch side trees but when taking off to change stations, was seized by the brisk wind and found itself tossed hither and thither as it struggled to regain equilibrium. But that stoicism shone through as it struggled to maintain its progress and at last, as it regained some protection beyond the trees, it began to make progress.

The only time I have seen a heron thrown into sheer panic was on a summer’s day when, out of a clear blue sky, there suddenly hurtled an angry osprey. Why the heron was the cause of so much ire I could not tell. Did the osprey see the heron as a rival for the loch’s scaly inhabitants? That seemed to be the only explanation for an attack of such magnitude as three times the poor heron was downed into the waters of the loch and only with a fair struggle did it finally make it to the shore, a very bedraggled and harassed bird. Even then, the assault continued, the osprey diving time and time again causing the poor heron to duck and dive. However, as suddenly as it had started the attack was called off, the osprey sailing away leaving the heron to dry off.

There are no such threats for the heron to contemplate at present. The ospreys are currently many hundreds of miles away wintering in West Africa, so once again the herons reign supreme, once more seemingly in charge! The many moods of herons are intriguing and often a heron will be quite anonymous, almost invisible, as it stands so still and statuesque, not moving a single muscle beside the water. Indeed, although the heron may seem to be a picture of indolence, believe me, it is wide awake and supremely alert. The indolent appearance is all part of the cunning plan of the bird but once a fish comes within reach, the heron is ready to strike.

Sometimes, the heron may be pro-active, literally wading through the water, ready to strike when the opportunity arises. In such a mood, I once watched a heron tackle an eel, or rather I watched as the eel wrapped itself around the bird’s bill! Eels clearly value their lives more than most and so determined was the eel, that the heron had no recourse but to wade ashore and find a suitable boulder against which it then smashed the eel until it was at last comatose and able to be swallowed.

Herons have a relatively varied diet, not all of which comprises fish. I once saw a trio of herons in line abreast, marching across a field. Every now and then, one of them would dart forward and seize something and I discovered that they were hunting voles. They may use similar tactics when frogs are migrating, intercepting the amphibians on their journey. I’ve never seen herons working quite so collectively either before or since, yet this was a very deliberate ploy and one which was clearly meeting with some success.

Amongst the other victims of herons can be the young of waterfowl. Herons are not fussy about what they eat and they are well equipped to exploit anything that comes within striking distance. Of course, the strike is the great attribute of a hunting heron. Often you will see a stalking heron cock its long and sinuous neck, ready to strike. And when it does, it does so literally with the speed of a snake. The only thing that confounds heron is when the water freezes. I once had a heron brought to me that had shattered its beak on ice. Sadly, there was nothing anyone could do to help the bird and it had to be put down, I did once hear an amazing story from Amsterdam, whether true or apocryphal, I’m not sure. It was a cold and frosty day in Amsterdam and the canals had frozen over. It was said that herons, denied their fishing, went around knocking at windows in the hope that someone would feed them!

I know that herons are bright and versatile but I find that tall story just a bit too good to be true!

Weekly Nature Watch 06 Nov 19

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Way back in 1066, England was invaded by the Normans following the epic Battle of Hastings. If England and Wales were thus conquered, Scotland fell under the influence of those Normans rather more insidiously, not so much conquered as infiltrated. The ruins of Norman castles across England and Wales tell the story of that conquest but across Britain one of the main legacies of the Norman presence came not in the form of castles but in the four-legged form of the rabbit. The Romans loved rabbit.

Indeed, so fond of rabbit was Emperor Hadrian – he of the wall – that he had the figure of a rabbit engraved on one of the Roman coins that was in circulation in Britain at the time, leading some historians to believe that rabbits were endemic to Britain. However, they are animals native to the Mediterranean shores of Southern Europe which the Romans soon discovered as they rolled westwards. Indeed, rabbit was apparently much favoured by Julius Caesar. There was also an incident which perhaps served as a warning to our farmers when the residents of the Balearic Islands pleaded for the authorities in Rome to do something about the rabbits that were destroying their crops. Clearly rabbit was a real favourite of the Romans, if not of those islanders.

Yet the Romans were not responsible for bringing rabbits to Britain. It was the invading Normans several hundred years after the Romans had left, who first brought rabbits to Britain. These animals, from those Mediterranean washed countries like Spain and France, now came to Britain.

The introduction of rabbits to Britain had very little effect on the British landscape for many hundreds of years. Indeed, until the late eighteenth century when the Agricultural Revolution began to transform Britain’s countryside, the rabbit remained a relatively obscure presence. However, it lurked in sufficient numbers to take maximum advantage of the sudden transformation of the British landscape as food production began in earnest and suddenly rabbits found themselves in a land of plenty. Hence, they went forth and multiplied and how they multiplied!

In a couple of hundred years, rabbits had become a plague, costing farmers a small fortune in lost revenue. I remember those times well. Rabbits literally swarmed. I remember driving through areas where rabbits had done especially well and how our skies seemed absolutely full of buzzards feasting on rabbits at will. But then in the mid fifties came myxomatosis and another transformation. Now sick and dying rabbits swarmed … a really pathetic sight and one that alarmed not only the general public but one which troubled many a countryman.

I remember a gamekeeper back in the mid nineteen fifties here in central Scotland, bemoaning the arrival of the dreaded ‘myxi’ saying that now his game birds would be under much greater threat from foxes as rabbits disappeared from the fox’s menu. People in general were shocked by the sight of disease-ridden rabbits crawling about, struck down by a disease that was deliberately introduced as a means of controlling these consumers of farmer’s crops. The disease came and went, wiping out colonies but resistance began to build up and rabbit populations continued to rise and fall in pockets.

Hereabouts, there have been few sightings of rabbits in recent times until a couple of weeks ago when suddenly a big buck rabbit appeared in my headlights. It set me thinking as to just what is and what is not a native animal. After all rabbits have probably been here for over a thousand years, even though their presence here was at the hands of those Norman invaders. Originally, rabbits came from the shores of the Mediterranean. The Romans soon discovered them as they set about conquering Europe and they soon became a favourite dish in Rome. The Normans however, with their passion for hunting brought them here as they not only provided protein rich food but good sport too!

When they first came here, much of Britain was wooded with heath, not ideal conditions for rabbits and so they existed but not in significant numbers until that revolution when suddenly the plough became a serious tool and farming suddenly took a significant leap forward. There was a time when rabbit societies existed in almost every part of the country and trapping rabbits was a common enough hobby – for some, a profession. Indeed, during the Second World War, my father was able to supplement our meagre meat rations with rabbits, obtained from a man who knew a man who knew a rabbit trapper. And let us not forget that people were frequently up in court for the crime of poaching rabbits, duly imprisoned or worse, transported to the other side of the world … for killing rabbits!

The fields hereabouts were once hoaching with rabbits. I mind one day seeing a buzzard exploding from the trees and making a bee-line for a grazing buck rabbit. The buzzard came in low and travelling at speed. It hit the rabbit amidships, sending it rolling over and over before launching a second attack. By now the rabbit had regained its balance and its composure sufficiently to bolt for its hole in the middle of the field and escape further contact. I well remember a field full of rabbits in the evenings, through which a fox regularly plodded. I could tell whether the fox had already eaten and so too could the rabbits. If his tummy was full, they merely made way for the fox. If they knew he was hungry, they literally exploded running as hard as they could to reach the safety of their burrows. I never knew how they knew which mood he was in!

I guess the appearance of that lone buck rabbit would be regarded as good news by the local keeper who I’m sure loses some of his pheasants to foxes. The return of a few rabbits would I’m sure be welcomed as that old keeper from way back in the fifties swore. The knock-on effect would be interesting for since the demise of the rabbit in this airt, the buzzard population has certainly flagged. Furthermore, I hardly ever see stoats hereabouts. When there were lots of rabbits, there were always stoats to be seen.

It's funny how fashions come and go. Rabbit was once a staple part of our diet but once myxomatosis arrived, with all its unpleasant consequences, rabbit quickly vanished from our menus. The return of the rabbit would not necessarily be welcomed by our farming community but they would, should they return with a vengeance, add much to the balance of nature as it has been for over a thousand years.

Weekly Nature Watch 29 Nov 2019

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My first awareness was entirely audible, a hissing, bloodcurdling shriek, followed soon after by a repeat performance and a sound I have not heard here for many long years. But there could be no doubt about it, the shriek emanated from a barn owl. Later in the week and in a totally different location I had a brief and unexpected glimpse of another barn owl as it zoomed in and then out of my headlights. Both these incidents were memorable, for barn owls hereabouts have not been doing well in recent years. Memories of previous encounters came flooding back and hopes rose that once again we could be regally entertained by barn owls in forthcoming months.

I regularly used to see barn owls hunting a nearby low-ground field which was special if only because it was boggy and rank, of little agricultural use but a real haven for all sorts of birds. I well remember summer evenings when the snipe would dive over their distinctly damp territory drumming away to their hearts’ content. Seldom did any human invade that mini wilderness but barn owls most certainly did. I used to watch them - like puppets on a string - buoyant and very beautiful as they quartered those damp recesses in their nightly search for voles. Kestrels, hawks and buzzards patrolled it and one day, I even saw a short-eared owl also quartering those acres. And then the ploughs moved in and obliterated it. Next, it was planted with rows of sitka spruce. What a loss! In response to my question as to why it had been planted, “Because we own it!” I was told by the forest officer. The further irony was that years later, it was sold without ever being harvested!

If a landscape is special because of the wildlife it supports, especially where there is no obvious viable alternative use, surely if we value it, a little reason and common sense should prevail. In this case it wasn’t and thus we lost what was a very precious corner where bird life of all sorts existed. This is why so much of our wildlife – very notably barn owls which are currently in serious decline - is in so much trouble. We know that tree planting has significance in terms of its absorption of carbon but surely those wild acres had greater merit as a habitat for all those birds. Furthermore, the peat content in the soil would also have absorbed plenty of carbon.

In a few years as the trees grew, what had been a mini paradise of wild avian splendour, became sterile, the snipe gone, the barn owls gone, the kestrels excluded, the buzzards now condemned to a profitless scan. No drumming, no spectral, floating barn owls. The only other place where barn owls had once nested – appropriately in a barn – had been converted into living quarters for humans so the barn owls were now excluded. But that has been the way of it for barn owls … excluded, forced out and so no longer to be seen quartering those once wild acres, no longer to be seen patrolling the nearby fields. Beautiful but seemingly redundant!

The wrecking of hedgerows to make farming life a little easier, the heavy use of rodenticides and a general failure to allow a habitat suited to these unique hunters has put them under serious pressure, not just here but pretty universally across Western Europe. Another memory flooded back from an evening long ago when on a visit to the town, I passed a barn owl hunting along a roadside verge. Alas, when I returned the bird was lying dead on that same verge, having been mowed down by a passing vehicle. I picked up the bird’s body and took it home. Now, I could deny that bland description that tells me a barn owl is buff and white. It is not! It is gold and white with silver added in to this royal mix. Simply beautiful, if so sadly dead!

Since then, I have seen so little of these gorgeous birds. Just an odd glimpse now and then. So, the prospect of seeing barn owls on a regular basis excites me. Could we once again be watching their ethereal progress on spring and summer evenings to come? I truly hope so. To see that bird hunting around dusk, floating low over the surrounding fields, that heart-shaped face peering down, those wings flapping rhythmically as it quarters the ground below; to see that spectre, ghost-like, dancing across the fields would be a real bonus. There is nothing quite like it.

The eyes of a barn owl are surprisingly small, much smaller than those of a tawny owl and in proportion about the same size as our own eyes relative to the size of the skull, so a barn owl does not overly rely upon its eyesight to focus on prey. Its real secret lies in its superb and highly tuned sense of hearing. Their ears, unseen of course because of the covering of plumage, are nevertheless huge. Furthermore, the left ear is set slightly higher on the head than the right ear. This curious arrangement enables the owl to pin-point with deadly accuracy, the exact whereabouts of its victim by moving its head. Therefore, it tunes in radar-like and is as accurate as any military paraphernalia designed to pin-point the enemy. It is absolutely infallible.

In recent years there has been a rapid growth in the conversion of old farm buildings into human habitation and that has certainly mitigated further against barn owls. There was a time that when farms were being first designed and built, special provision was always made for owls to nest, simply because these eager consumers of small rodents provided a cheap form of. Nowadays the precious grain is stored in pest-proof containers and so the threat posed by rodents is far less acute. However, up and down the country, there are lots of schemes which are designed to benefit wildlife. The restoration of hedgerows would certainly help barn owls, providing much needed habitat for those small mammals. Our desire to neaten the countryside does barn owls no favours, so areas set aside for wildlife and especially rough razing would add to the benefits that might provide a lifeline for our falling population of barn owls.

Notwithstanding their physical beauty, owls are rather less appealing vocally and I recall an occasion when a pair of barn owls took up residence in the disused chimney of a house on the main street of one of our nearby towns. The chimney was out of sight from the pavement on that side of the street and I well remember spending an evening on the other side of the street gazing upwards to watch the parent birds constantly coming in with food for their brood of youngsters. Each visit was greeted with the weird screeching and hissing of those youngsters. Indeed, the strange noises caused a number of pedestrians to quicken their steps and hurry on their way past the building, not knowing what those strange noises were. One pedestrian was so unnerved that she called the police but in the end, the constabulary decided that there had been no disturbance of the peace!

Weekly Nature Watch 22 Nov 19

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These are encouraging times for red squirrels, significantly better than when, in the late nineteenth century, a craze developed which saw the alien American grey squirrel brought to this country. It was a certain Mr. Brocklehurst, a landowner from Cheshire who brought the first of these subsequently unwelcome squirrels – two pairs of them – and released them on his estate. Inevitably, they went forth and multiplied … with a vengeance! That first introduction occurred in 1876 after Mr. Brocklehurst had seen such animals cavorting in New York’s Central Park and, thinking how charming they were in that setting, arbitrarily decided they would be equally entertaining in this country.

Sadly, he was not alone. In subsequent years, other landowners, not to mention some civic organisations, followed his example and soon grey squirrels were scurrying about all over the place. The first to arrive in Scotland came to the shores of Loch Long in 1895 but by the 1920s, they had so well established a presence especially in the south that young squirrels from sites in England were being freely sold to be released elsewhere in the UK. Not a thought had been given to what the consequences of the impact of this introduction might have on our native red squirrels. In time, it was apparent that the aggressive nature of grey squirrels would have a seriously deleterious effect on the smaller red squirrels which were unable to compete with the greys for food sources. Furthermore, the reds were exposed to a deadly virus carried by the grey squirrels to which they were immune but the reds were not!

The folly of introducing alien species has since been thoroughly exposed as red squirrel populations have plummeted, except perhaps across Highland Scotland. Yet the lessons were not learned. During the twentieth century, mink farms were set up here, the animals also coming from America. Inevitably, some escaped and established themselves in the wild. Even worse, when the bottom dropped out of the mink-fur business, farmers, unable to feed their mink, just released them. Further devastation occurred when anti-fur farming folk released mink from farms as a means of protest. The devastation that followed saw many ground nesting birds in the areas close to such releases, fail to rear any chicks for a number of years. The native water vole also disappeared from large swathes of the UK landscape thanks to the predation of mink.

Mink are severely controlled these days but continue to wreak havoc in some places where they are still a force. Water voles, their chief victims, are being re-introduced to many rivers across the UK and mink control has been intensified but until mink are finally eliminated altogether, Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Ratty’ may continue to struggle.

Now another introduction, this time of stoats to Orkney, threatens a whole host of birds and animals native to and precious to those islands. The first stoat was seen there in 2010 and so concerned are folk about the devastation that might occur should they establish themselves that a major scheme to eradicate them is under way. Curiously enough, neither the Edinburgh or London Governments are making a contribution to the tackling of this problem!

The threats these interloping stoats pose are manifold, with the last really significant realm of our hen harriers which is in Orkney under threat through predation of harrier eggs and the effect the stoats may have on one of the main sources of harrier food, the unique Orkney vole. The Orkney vole has developed in isolation from its mainland cousin and has reached a size almost twice that of a mainland vole. Indeed, stoats threaten a whole range of ground nesting birds in Orkney where wildlife is understandably regarded as an asset of considerable substance, a vital factor in Orkney life. No-one seems to know how the stoats got there in the first place but some suspect that this was a deliberate introduction as stoats have never before been among Orkney’s diverse wildlife icons.

There are bitter ironies touching so many aspects of the introduction across Britain of non-native species of all manner of plants, animals, marine organisms and birds. In many parts of southern England, parakeets have firmly established themselves and their noisy presence in gardens is becoming increasingly evident. These originated from the escape of captive birds but when we look at the invasive plant species, they are literally all around us. During previous centuries, plant collectors from Britain toured the world in search of plants which were thought would enhance the British countryside. Now some of these species are overwhelming some native species as witness the rhododendron bashing that has become a common conservation strategy. There are many others which also have a negative impact, giant hogweed and Himalayan balsam among them.

The ironies about the squirrel equation is that there was a time, prior to and during the introduction of grey squirrels, when our native reds were targets of clubs set up to reduce squirrel numbers because of the damage they caused to new plantations of trees. The Highland Squirrel Club for instance, was set up in 1903 and in the next thirty years no fewer than 85,000 red squirrels were killed by its members! However, the deleterious effect of grey squirrels completely turned attitudes around and these days it is the grey that people wish to see the back of with hopefully, red squirrels returning to fill the void.

Coincidentally, a perfectly natural solution has arisen with the spread of the pine marten across many parts of Scotland and now, with a little help, into parts of England and Wales. This beautiful arboreal predator had been massively persecuted during the killing years when many aspects of our wildlife were devastated with the rise of the sporting estate. Indeed, pine marten very nearly followed ospreys, sea eagles and polecats into extinction in Scotland. Fortunately, they managed to cling on in some remoter areas of the Highlands Given legal protection in 1988, pine marten soon began to respond, re-occupying areas from which they had been forcibly removed and in recent years they have quickly spread to many areas where grey squirrels had established themselves as dominant.

Grey squirrels are considerably heavier than red squirrels and as such provide martens with easier prey to catch. Furthermore, once caught they provide excellent eating! Here, as elsewhere, the activities of pine marten have had a transformative effect upon the grey squirrel population, virtually eliminating them. Happily, there were present enough red squirrels to fill the void and now I hear that red squirrels are being seen in Stirlingshire villages for the first time in living memory, thanks probably to the intervention of pine marten in the vicinity. In addition, red squirrels have been re-introduced to forests in the north from which they have long been absent.

The lighter red squirrel does sometimes fall victim to pine marten but as they are able to reach the thinner branches of trees where marten fear to tread, giving them much better opportunities to survive, they seldom fall victim. I’m absolutely convinced that the introduction of pine marten into the Forest of Dean in Southern England will quickly result in a welcome reduction in grey squirrel numbers there. Maybe there also red squirrels, freed of the competition of greys, will become re-established. It is becoming the natural way of restoring the balance.

It is now many years since I first came across pine marten in this airt. I had previously travelled to places like Ardnamurchan and Wester Ross to see them. My first sighting here was of a marten running across the road near our local loch but there followed other experiences including an incident in which a pine marten reared her family in the roof space of a house belonging to a friend. We were richly entertained by the family of martens which in no uncertain terms confirmed that a population was beginning to establish itself here. Indeed, I responded to a request by a local resident as to what had happened to their bird feeder, subsequently found a few hundred yards away from their garden. The culprit from description, a pine marten! So, in recent times there has not been a grey squirrel to be seen!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods