En route, Glenkens 29/3/20
In pausing and holding still for half an hour, I parked up the truck and unscrewed the thermos on a wide forest track. This is sometimes a good spot to watch for short eared owls, and with most of a Sunday on my side, I reckoned that it was a good place to take a break from the relentless drive of dyking and fence repair.
Sure enough, there was an owl above the rushes, but my eye was drawn to a black shadow on the track ahead of me, almost six hundred yards away. At first I took it for a bird of some kind – I am so desperately focussed on black grouse in this place that any movement or point of curiosity is immediately ascribed the most pressing importance because I would never forgive myself if I overlooked a clue which related to blackgame. With binoculars focussed, it became immediately obvious that I was not seeing a bird at all; rather something even more unusual – a mammal – and not even one alone. My first thought was that I was watching a pair of otters coming rumbling up the track, and that they would surely drop down into a ditch long before they ever reached me. Seconds passed, and it became clear that I was staring directly at a fast approaching pair of pine martens.
I’ve come within a whisker of pine martens a thousand times. I’ve found signs of them all through the woods of home, and I’ve even seen them lying dead on roadside verges – but a glimpse of true-blue pine martens “in the flesh” has eluded me for thirty four years. It is one of the great unrequited love stories of our time; that I should admire those creatures from afar and yet never be allowed to rest my eyes upon one. It has been a steady and maddening torture.
The running shapes continued to close the gap, and I reached for my telephone to film them. The resulting footage is surprisingly good, showing them galloping ever nearer with their tails flared like bottle brushes. A dribbly mug of coffee tipped itself unheeded across my lap – and still they came on without a note of concern for the large Isuzu pickup in the track ahead.
In a stir of dizzy disbelief, I watched them run almost within arm’s reach – directly beneath my wing mirror. There then began an intense and noisy confrontation in the vicinity of my tow-bar; bump, scream and rattle, and soon they had emerged under the bumper again, stirring up a cloud of dust and grit from the track as they tumbled and rowed like tomcats. Then they broke and returned on the long sprint back out the way they had come. In thirty seconds, they had vanished again. I was glad to have filmed them, otherwise I might never have believed that it had happened at all.
I’ve since been advised that this is likely to be an old male chasing one of last year’s young out of his territory as the breeding season progresses. Friends who know a great deal more about pine martens than I do seem to reckon that my “video” (such as it is) is unprecedented and may show aspects of juvenile dispersal which haven’t been filmed in this country before. I posted the video on social media and it was seen over fifty thousand times in less than six hours; a few scientists and ecologists who study pine martens professionally seemed to have turned green with envy, but this seems to have been a matter of pure dumb luck.
For my part, I simply cannot stop smiling – and these woods which usually show an owl or two have risen beyond all reckoning in my estimation. I have waited a long time to see my first pine marten, and it was definitely worth the wait.