Nov 11 2011 by Jean Pedder, Stirling Observer Friday
JACK FROST seems to have slept in this autumn. Only during the past few days has he awakened from his torpor to send an abrupt signal that as daylight hours continue to shrink, winter is drawing closer and closer.
Suddenly the autumn landscape is blazing with red horse chestnuts, golden larches and brilliant rust coloured beeches, the latter perhaps, most prominent in hedgerows and all providing a final, glorious, colourful fling.
Red aplenty in the gathering faces of goldfinches, now as the mercury plummets, suddenly eager to pack themselves full of nyjer seed.
And red too amongst those beech hedges, red haws and hips ... and surprisingly, a couple of dashing red squirrels, presumably using the hedges that line our track, as routes of exploration.
They’re getting more daring by the day. The entertaining acrobatics of such a squirrel in a neighbour’s garden provided an interesting diversion from the gathering gloom into which we have been plunged since the clocks went back.
Further sightings of squirrels scurrying along our track and finally leaping on to the substantial trunk of an old oak, into the boughs of which one wee fellow quickly disappeared, confirm the strengthening presence of these comeback kids of the immediate environment.
The advancing march of our native squirrels locally, compared with the previously absolute dominance of alien greys until I suppose, a dozen years ago, has coincided precisely with the arrival here of pine marten.
Indeed, prior to a surprise meeting with a marten by the shore of the loch some twelve years or so ago, my previous observations of these fascinating but elusive creatures had almost all been in the Western Highlands.
Save for a single incidence rather closer to home yet still distant enough for it to not be properly regarded as “local”, those fleeting glimpses summarised my pine marten sightings.
During the ensuing years however, my path has been crossed many times by martens and their footprints are a familiar sight on the lids of our wheelie bins.
Indeed, towards the end of last winter, I was asked to investigate the disappearance of not just nuts but whole nut containers from a friend’s garden.
The ‘thieves’ it was discovered had discarded their booty a couple of hundred yards away, without it seems, finding a way to extract the nuts within. Conclusion – the culprits were pine marten which I knew to have become residents of a nearby wood.
Attitudes towards the new generations of pine marten are interesting when compared with those that prevailed towards the end of the nineteenth century.
That of course, was the new era of “the sporting estate”, when anything worthy of the name ‘game’ was protected with the same sort of determination shown by the beefeaters in the Tower of London in their protection of the Crown Jewels!
Accordingly, those charged with the responsibility of ensuring good bags for the privileged shooting parties they now played host too, declared war on any form of wildlife thought to threaten the said game.
Raptors were shot out of the sky willy nilly, trapped, often very inhumanely, poisoned and in general, persecuted to such a degree that ospreys, sea eagles and red kites were totally exterminated.
The same guns, traps and poisons were also trained upon all carnivores, including of course, pine marten. Indeed, the pursuit of martens was carried out with such zeal that they came perilously close to becoming extinct too.
A well-thumbed volume that has been by my side pretty well since it was published in the mid-nineteen sixties, declares that at that time, the pine marten was only present in Scotland, in the north west highlands.
In older tomes, it was suggested that it was only to the furthest tip of the bleak north west, that the last few remaining pine marten had retreated in the face of such persistent persecution.
Pine marten hunts were pursued with such vigour that there was virtually no chance of escape.
Once a marten had been spotted it was chased until it could be isolated in a tree. A huntsman would then shin up the tree before being passed a bale of smoking straw or vegetation, which he would tie to a long pole and poke at the terrified creature. In due course, blinded by smoke and panic, after much shrieking and growling, the marten would tumble from the tree to be immediately seized upon by the waiting hounds. Not much in the way of sport in that!
Of all the weasel clan, it could be argued that the pine marten is the most attractive with its chestnut coat and cream bib.
Indeed, the closely related beech martens were long ago regularly kept as pets by the Greeks, apparently before the domestic cat was introduced from Egypt.
I guess they also served a similar purpose by killing invading rats and mice. Our martens are quite arboreal in habit and the new generations of them now apparently spreading throughout Scotland, have found a new, easy to catch quarry their ancestors would not even have known, in the grey squirrel.
Being roughly twice the weight of a red squirrel, the grey is accordingly much less agile and therefore much easier to catch. Furthermore it must provide the marten with a much better square meal!
Of course, the marten will also catch red squirrels albeit that the much lighter red is able to escape the marten’s clutches much more easily by getting out on to the thinner branches of trees that cannot bear the weight of a marten.
The activities of martens hereabouts over the past dozen or so years, have therefore transformed what was once I remember, a haven for grey squirrels, into what is now virtually a no go grey squirrel area. Accordingly, the previously rare reds have quickly re-colonised what was presumably, many years ago, before the ill-advised introduction of the greys, their exclusive domain.
And of course, red squirrels know nothing of credit crunches or double dip recessions.
For as long as they have been present here – a million years or more – they have been inveterate hoarders, saving Nature’s autumn bounty for the rainy (or more likely snowy and frosty) days of winter, famously burying vast stores of pine cones, seeds, nuts and beech mast in the process.
Despite their long-term presence in these islands, red squirrels currently find themselves in a rather precarious plight. Largely due to the greater competitiveness for food sources of the greys, which inevitably end up pushing the native reds out and of course the transmission by the greys of a pernicious disease, squirrel pox, red squirrels are now absent from many parts of Britain.
Their backs are very much to the wall, one of their last remaining strongholds, the Highlands of Scotland. How strange then that here at least, their growing presence is largely down to the increasing presence of a carnivore once almost mercilessly hunted to extinction.
Not that life had previously been particularly “cushy” for red squirrels. The massive depletion of our native forests during the 18th century was thought (probably wrongly) to have wiped the red squirrel out altogether.
Indeed such was the concern for them that the Duke of Atholl re-introduced them to his Perthshire estate in 1790, this new stock imported from Scandinavia.
There were other re-introductions elsewhere and in due course, as new forests began to be planted, red squirrels now prospered to such an extent that at the beginning of the 20th century, an organisation called The Highland Squirrel Club was formed as a means of controlling their numbers! Such a chequered history may seem bizarre now when war has been declared instead against the alien greys and strenuous efforts are being made to nurture populations of reds.
What goes round, apparently comes around when it comes to pine marten and squirrels.
A straggle of gulls have just floated past, their progress hardly disturbed by a spiralling red kite drifting across their bows. As autumn days dwindle down, it’s so nice to be seeing red!