A First Encounter with Pine Martens: Extract from A Richness of Martens

  12 Apr '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

A Richness of Martens by Polly Pullar was released in paperback this month, and in celebration, we have chosen an extract to share from this extraordinary book. This excerpt details the first encounter between Polly and the pine martens that visit Les and Chris Humphreys in Ardnamurchan, who have cultivated an incredibly intimate relationship with the usually elusive animals. A Richness of Martens tells the remarkable story of the Humphreys and their animal friends, interpolating it with natural history, anecdote and her own experiences of the wildlife of the area.

Extract from A Richness of Martens by Polly Pullar

I was devastated when my family decided to move away from Ardnamurchan, but unlike them, I have continued to spend as much time as possible there ever since, and when I do Ockle becomes my base. It was during one of my stays that the cottage owner, my close friend Sue Cameron, said, ‘You have to meet the Humphreys at Glenmore. Not only would you have much in common with them, but you would absolutely love to see the pine martens that come into their house every night.’

Shortly after this I found myself sitting in Les and Chris Humphreys’ beautiful house overlooking Loch Sunart, drinking tea whilst eating a slab of cake large enough to fob off a pack of wolves. We chatted as we sat looking out of the large windows onto the bay. Within minutes an otter and cubs drifted into view, swimming effortlessly through the flat grey sea with only their heads, rounded backs and tail tips visible. They emerged wetly on a weed-embellished rock and disappeared over the other side. I could also see a great northern diver in the bay, its distinctive large head and stocky body making its outline easy to recognise. A ministerial heron stood in his grey vestments, his eyes missing nothing, waiting patiently to stab the next meal, a sentient being on the russet-coloured shoreline. Then there was a flurry of excitement and the announcement of the first arrival. A pine marten had come to the feed table situated against the open study window in the next room. Now I only had to look at a massive screen at the side of the room. It was linked to a camera outside so that all the activity there could be easily viewed. ‘Oh, it’s Graham, he’ll be in shortly. Polly, take this egg and just sit still holding out your hand,’ Chris said. I sat motionless, grasping the egg in my hand and scarcely daring to breathe. Shortly, a sharp little face with a dapper creamy-coloured cravat peeped around the sitting-room door and Graham came over towards me, hesitating to sniff the air whilst giving me an intense visual examination. Then he tentatively got onto the sofa beside me, before politely taking the egg from me, ensuring he slotted it crossways across his open mouth to avoid breaking it. I noted how gentle and careful he was, so much so that it made a great impression on me; I wanted the moment to last. He gave me another quick once-over and then bounced off the sofa and bounced back out again. His aroma seemed almost sweet, akin to damp leaf litter on the woodland floor.

This was an astonishing experience, so different from the fleeting ones I had had previously. It literally opened a door onto an entirely new view of the pine marten, and was the beginning of an extraordinary foray into their world. Ever since that first intimate experience I have been enjoying these wonderful interludes with Les and Chris at their home, which since their retirement has been turned over entirely to the rich diversity of wildlife that frequents this maritime habitat. It is the pine martens, however, that are the dominant feature as, without planning it, the Humphreys’ lives have become deeply entwined with theirs, and a remarkable saga has been playing out ever since.

In fourteen years of studying and enjoying martens, Les and Chris have made some revealing discoveries and have had dozens of different animals coming to their garden, some for years, others for mere fleeting visits. They have watched and recorded a fascinating range of marten behaviour, most never previously witnessed. Mothers visit with kits, and there is much interaction with other wildlife, including foxes, otters, badgers and hedgehogs. Their garden has been bugged from end to end with camera traps. It doesn’t matter at what unearthly hour the visits happen, the moment will be captured and is monitored and recorded on Les’s state-of-the-art gear. Every morning the night’s footage is minutely studied over tea and toast as more revelations unfold. A combination of the perfect surrounding habitat, a garden packed with wildlife-friendly plants and shrubs, and the lure of peanuts, jam, grapes, eggs, day-old-chicks and digestive biscuits, makes this a pine marten paradise. And let’s not forget Chris’s Victoria sponge cake, or the fact that martens have an insatiable sweet tooth.

The pine marten is indeed a skilled opportunist. Some come right inside the house, and often appear looking for their human associates if the smorgasbord of delights is laid out a little late. The animals are always fed at the window on a table specially
made for them. This minimises familiarity with other human beings outwith the area, and keeps them away from the road. So
far the martens have shown no signs of being familiar with other people except within the confines of this ‘safe’ house.

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