Must be a Mustelid...
Most of the campsite guests I had spoken too over the past few days had seen Otters, and had some pretty impressive otter encounters, one of which spent the best part of an hour and a half watching two otters eating and playing along the shoreline. All of the sightings had happened at the wildlife hide just 2 miles up the road, Garbh Eilean – a beautiful, good sized open viewing hide tucked away in atlantic oaks. From here people are pretty much guaranteed to see common seals, potentially sea eagles and if you’re lucky otters – it seems that people were very lucky over the last few days. Surely, it was my turn to have an amazing otter encounter, so I decided that after work I would make the most of the west coasts long summer evenings and head towards the hide in search of mustelids. I found one, but not the one I was looking for.
At 10pm this time of year (if it’s not mizzling or a torrential downpour) it’s still light enough to use my binoculars and get a good enough view, so armed with them and my raincoat I headed along the road in the direction of the hide. There’s something magical about the Scottish summer evening and this one was no exception, with clouds crowned in pink hues and the last drops of a summer shower splashing from the ferns to the road mixing the smell of warm tarmac and lush woodlands. Even if I didn’t see anything just being beside the loch and mountains would have been enough.
Down on the shoreline a pair of frenzied sandpipers buzzed from rock to rock, their little legs a blur of whizzing movement and their harsh chipping almost drowning out the oystercatchers that noisily skimmed the loch surface. Just bird life on the shore this evening, no mammals -not even a seal insight. And in typical Scottish fashion the pink evening sky was turning grey. Fat droplets of water were beginning to fall onto my waterproof jacket, beading on the sleeve before rolling easily off, keeping me dry, working in much the same as the otter’s triangular waterproof fur. Luckily, I was headed for the trees that thickly arched over the road, tangling together and creating a tunnel out of the rain.
A figure tumbled out of the damp roadside ferns, a long dark shape formed in front me. An otter. That was the first thought that raced into my mind, caught up in the moment of my encounter, but then I noticed the fur. It wasn’t slick and oily looking like the water dwelling mustelid. This fur was fluffy, with a soft tufty appearance, almost like it was standing on end- a bit like it had just rolled out of bed. It was also much darker, richer, a dark chocolate colour with a bib of clotted cream dribbling down it’s front. Pine marten. Definitely pine marten. It looked just like a stretched-out bear crossing the road, taking it’s time and showing absolutely no sense of urgency. I had seen it before it had seen me. The passing shower must have muffled the sound of my footsteps and rustling jacket – further confirming my theory that rain makes for ideal wildlife watching conditions. Eventually it clocked me, and I expected that my encounter would have end there as quickly as it started, but the pine marten had other ideas. In a serpentine fashion it raised it’s body up on its hind legs and took a good look, swaying try and keep its’ balance on two very short back legs. Apparently, it didn’t feel like it was close enough to get a good enough look at me, so it decided to lollop down the middle of the road in my direction. My mind was rapidly picking through facts about pine martens, I had thought they were shy retiring animals, quick to retreat at any indication of human presence. Not this one. This one was bulshy and inquisitive, clearly puzzled by the human in the black raincoat, and keen to get a better look at my shoes. It's body seemed to move in a weird block like fashion, each segment controlled the next resulting in a strangely mechanical movement. We both stood, yards apart staring at each other, the rain falling around us and neither one bothered by it. I never thought that I would find myself having a stand-off with a pine marten in the Scottish Highlands on a Tuesday night, but there I was. Once it had a good enough look it headed off into the ditch and then into a thick carpet of ferns, as though nothing had happened. Vanished. The only trail it left was a cacophony of angry birds; blackbirds and wrens firing off angry calls into the enclosing evening. Pine martens as well as eating voles, rabbits and squirrels or scavenging berries, nuts and scraps from nearby bins, they are partial to the odd egg. The fact that are partly arboreal makes them even more of a threat making it easy to understand why the birds were so quick to chastise this bear like creature as it skulked through their territory.
The pine marten appears to have a bit of a stronghold here on the peninsula, and I quite often speak to guests and locals that see them on a regular basis, be it on feeding stations or having made itself at home in the eaves of someone’s house or chasing their chickens. They have a mixed fan base here with some regarding them as a treasure and others as a nuisance, but the pine marten is legally protected and thanks to that, it's no longer on the brink of extinction. This legal protection doesn’t just protect the animal from being killed, but also makes it illegal to destroy any dens, allowing them to continue breeding successfully. The Vincent Wildlife Trust and Scottish National Heritage provide information on how to deter these relatively rare creatures from houses and poultry pens, helping manage any problems in a sustainable way. Some people may argue that their predation of red squirrels is a problem (red squirrels are also a threatened species), however groups are looking at how the pine marten is potentially helping the population to thrive by driving out their main competitor – the grey squirrel.
Whatever your opinion on the pine marten, it’s a pretty impressive comeback story, and alongside others once persecuted like the otter, it is thriving here in Scotland, particularly on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. So, whilst my incredible otter encounter has eluded me this time, I will forever treasure my meeting with this wonderful character in the gloaming, in the rain on a little Scottish country road.
And no......I didn't have the camera with me. Typical!