One of my favourite wildlife stories came from a friend of mine. He was driving along near Fewston when a snake undulated across the road in front of him. Only it wasn’t a snake: as it reached the grass of the roadside verge it broke into a family of young weasels obviously following their mother, in well-disciplined fashion, on an early outing into the big world.
Early September is a good time to spot mammals. Families are breaking up and young weasels, stoats, foxes and even moles have to disperse and find their own territories. Squirrels, hedgehogs and badgers are all busy feeding, building up strength at this bountiful time for the lean months ahead and are often more tolerant of observation. Sadly many youngsters do not survive their first winter but populations are at their highest now.
Like me, my sister in the Scottish Highlands keeps careful records of her garden wildlife and we regularly share information, enjoying each other’s new discoveries. It’s not a competition – but, if it were, this summer she would have scored a major victory. Until then her red squirrels and occasional otter were balanced out by my visiting badgers; then something new happened.
The first clue came when a peanut feeder vanished overnight. Its more strongly secured replacement was regularly wrenched awry and its contents snaffled. Then, one evening while watching television, she happened to glance out of the window just as a large dark shape came shimmying down the tree from which the feeder hung, wrestled the lid off it and shoved its nose inside. It was the size of a large cat but had a long luxuriantly bushy tail. Nights remain light in the Scottish summer and it was a simple matter to identify the intruder – a pine marten. Subsequently they saw it on several occasions, once in full daylight when it was possible to get photographs and see the colours more clearly –lustrous dark brown coat and cream chest patches. The ears, too, are fringed with creamy yellow.
I once spent a week in Ardnamurchan trying to see a pine marten. We found tracks and scats, met witnesses who didn’t even know what they’d seen, stayed at a place where, it was promised, a pine marten visited regularly – but all to no avail. However, populations of this rare and elusive creature are increasing. There have even been sightings reported from North Yorkshire.