The Pine Martens of Wester Ross
by Dr June McNicholas & Dr Jeff Lewis
Contrary to popular opinion, ferrets do occasionally have to take a back seat in our lives. So, somehow mastering the complex logistics of finding board for 27 ferrets, we packed them off to their various holiday homes and headed for Gairloch in North-west Scotland. Our destination was a remote house which had a history of over 25 years of visiting pine martens.
Although we certainly expected to see pine martens, I think we had imagined this would be on a distant feeding table, and maybe only for a few moments at a time. In fact, the feeding station was on the balcony immediately in front of the window! Each evening the pine martens came to investigate our offerings of jam sandwiches (recommended by experienced marten watchers!), sometimes as many as five different animals, although always visiting separately. So long as we did not make sudden movements or try to touch them, the pine martens were content to feed within a couple of feet of us whilst we sat at the open window or on the balcony step taking photographs.
Much of their behaviour showed their close relatedness to ferrets. For example the way they took a favoured morsel to a corner to feed, the way they stood on their haunches to get a better look at things. Males and females were recognisable in the same way as jills and hobs, males being larger and more robust with broader heads whilst the jills were smaller and distinctly feminine. However both were very much larger than ferrets, perhaps between two and three times the size, with much more expressive faces, large eyes and more mobile ears. Add to this the ability to jump and climb with consummate grace and you have strikingly beautiful animal.
Just as we had thought we couldn't experience pine martens to any better advantage, we had a breakfast time visit from a mature male who quite literally knocked on window and asked to be let in. Clearly used to being welcomed, he came in and sat on the doormat whilst we hand-fed him digestives biscuits! For perhaps half an hour we were able to be within inches of him. It was quite obvious that he was in control and that it was him bestowing privileges on us. He was happy for us to feed him and sit next to him, even caress his jaw whilst he took a biscuit, but an outstretched hand toward his back resulted in firm grunt as he turned away momentarily, just to let us know he would not tolerate liberties. (Not that with his size and power we were thinking of taking any!)
It was an incredible experience to be so close to one of rarest and most beautiful animals in the country, and the pleasure was enhanced by the resemblance to our ferrets. When we got back and collected our ferrets, our first thoughts were 'Aren't they small!' - that big male marten certainly put all the 'You should see the size of my hobs' comments into perspective!
(First published Autumn 1999)>