I think that of all the mammal families my favourite must be the mustelids, the group that contains badgers, otters, weasels and stoats. There’s something very engaging about the sociability of badgers and their exuberant playfulness, a quality which they share with otters. There’s more to life than the relentless task of getting a living: an attitude which we pampered first-worlders can recognise and identify with. Even those totally focused predators, the stoats and weasels, have a family life full of joie de vivre and graceful acrobatics. And, when they become adult and solitary, they pursue their lives with such a vivid intensity, you feel they are as completely alive as it’s possible to be.
All these creatures are delightful to watch and – unusually for this time of an increasingly long list of threatened species – they seem to be holding their own. In fact, in Ilkley you have a good chance of seeing badgers – in gardens or just trotting along the tree-lined streets, especially if you live to the west of the town. I actually saw one on a memorable evening last autumn when it visited our garden in Ben Rhydding. It emerged from the bushes, strolled across the lawn, gobbled up food put out for the fox and padded off.
Otters have returned to the Wharfe and Washburn and, although you would be lucky to glimpse one of these elusive creatures, their signs in the form of spraint, left on rocks, under bridges, and in other otter-important places, bear witness to an increasing presence. Weasels, the smallest of our British mustelids, are perhaps less common than they were but stoats are doing well. No closing down during winter months for them. They have to be out hunting throughout the year. As vegetation dies down, they are much easier to see: investigating dry-stone walls, darting along field edges, or quartering the river banks. They’re inquisitive animals so, if you do glimpse one, it’s worth standing still and waiting for a few minutes; chances are that it will reappear to get a better look at you!
There are other members of the mustelid family, not yet here in Wharfedale, but part of our British list. For five years, the Vincent Wildlife Trust has been collecting data on the numbers and distribution of polecats by the simple method of recording road casualties. At one time this rather larger, darker-coloured relative of the stoat, with its distinctive white patches to either side of the nose and face, was thought to be limited to the Welsh borders, but the new evidence indicates that they are more widely distributed. The VWT are looking for volunteers to continue the work and are interested in compiling data for Yorkshire and Humberside. And what about the pine marten? Most of us have now seen this rare and attractive mammal on one of the many excellent natural history programmes on TV. We are familiar with its rich brown coat, cream bib and predeliction for raspberry jam sandwiches served up on convenient window-sills in North-west Scotland. We may even be able to recognize the field signs – curved scats which it obligingly distributes along wall tops and the sides of forest tracks. Well, there is now evidence that pine martens are spreading beyond their Scottish stronghold. There have even been reported sightings from the forests of North Yorkshire.