by John Lister-Kaye – 12:03 on 18 February 2015
A pine marten’s life is simple. They are driven by need and fear – those two. Need for food and a mate; fear of man the dread predator, the exterminator. They have been trapped for their shining fur as soft as mink, they’ve been shot for stealing hens and gamekeepers have poisoned them for taking game and we run them over on the roads; not so long ago our efforts drove them to the very edge of doom.
So here we are: the man and the marten. The seconds tick by. My eyes are locked onto his – his onto mine. I’d like to say that it’s a game of who will flinch first, but just at this moment I’m not so sure. My brain has emptied down, nothing to offer. For as long as it will last, time has stopped. Spike is glaring at me like an angry drunk at the other end of the bar, daring me to look away.
Very slowly I withdraw my wits from his metallic, levelled gaze. I know why he is there. It is a rowan tree. This is his time for gorging on rowan berries and he does not like to be disturbed. He has been to the top of the tree and several weighty clusters of fat, ripe fruit lie scattered on the ground between us. He was on his way down to get them, now caught in the act. He wants those berries. Something in the core of his being is telling him he needs them. I think his mouth must be watering. His dilemma is twofold: to come on down for the spoils, or let discretion win and just to flee, to leap away through the trees as fleet as a squirrel. If he ventures down to get the fallen berries he must come closer to me. If he flees he could be gone in a flash of chocolate fur. He can see those berries; they are his. I know that if I move even an inch, he will go. Indecision and indignation have clashed in his feisty marten brain. For the moment it is stalemate.
I have seen martens on countless occasions, but I have never been fixed by a glare like this before. It is as though I am no longer in control and I have to wait for his next move. The chess analogy is irresistible: I have to wait; those are the rules of the game. We could be here for a while.
His gaze never flickers and I can’t read it. Past experience dictates only one realistic option: that his nerve will eventually fail and he will turn and vanish into the trees. After all these years of seeing and thinking I understood pine martens, I would have put good money on it. Oh! We are so smug. We gain a little familiarity and a little knowledge and we think we’ve got it sorted. It’s all good interesting stuff, this wildlife, but we humans are the superior beings, the smart-arses who boast about wildness as though it is a commodity, something we have invented for our own pleasure and can dabble with as we please. We think we know the pine marten.
I was enjoying this encounter, no doubt about it. But the smugness of our own imprinting was wrapping me round like a fog. I had fooled myself into thinking my superior brain was back in control. Just a matter of waiting – yes, a game of who will blink first, and I was in charge. And it was to be Spike, as I had made up my mind it would be. But that wasn’t how Spike saw things this morning. Something entirely other was fizzing through the hot cloisters of his acute little brain. What I hadn’t understood, hadn’t even considered an option, was that this long needly stare was a carefully calculated mustelline risk-assessment. It was as though he had sussed that I wasn’t going to give in – had weighed it all up and was carefully considering his options, plotting his final move, his checkmate.
Not in a week of waiting would I have been able to predict what happened next.
Without the slightest hint of panic or hurry he turned away and disappeared down the far side of the trunk of the rowan. Ha! I thought; I’ve won. I was wrong. Oh! I was wrong, wrong, wrong. There was nothing hard wired about this second god of the autumn morning. He appeared again at the foot of the tree and in three quick bounds he came straight toward me. From only five feet away a chittering yell of abuse broke from his throat, hurled at me with all the contempt he could muster. Then he snatched up a bunch of berries – his berries – threw me a disdainful glance and vanished back into the undergrowth.
by John Lister-Kaye – 12:01 on 24 January 2018
A frozen loch gleams icily in the last hour of night. An eerie stillness settles around us. No birds are stirring yet; deer are still out on the river fields, yet to slip back into the woods as winter daylight slowly spills in from the cloudless east. Wisps of ghostly white mist hang over the valley and somewhere far upstream we can hear the bugling of the twelve whooper swans that have winged in from the high Arctic to winter on our river.
We had dumped a road-kill roe deer carcass out on the moor with a stealthcam in place to see who and what would exploit it. The first and obvious images were fox. A solitary fox tugging at the rib cage and hauling it off into the bushes – totally predictable fox behaviour, but good to see it in action. So this morning we rose early to try to see for ourselves, Greg and Ben and I, up before dawn to sit in the treetop hide twenty-five feet above the moor, looking out over the carcass site and further to the little lochan to our left.
Silence, the silence of hard frost. And we sat in silence, waiting and watching. I had thought we might have seen roe deer picking delicately through the broom and gorse scrub spread before us, or perhaps a party of red deer hinds and their well grown calves ambling quietly back from the river fields, browsing as they came. But no. Nothing stirred. Half an hour slid emptily past. Several freezing nights and a sugar dusting of snow on the ice had made the lochan shine like a silver shield. Ben touched my arm and pointed.
There, in hard silhouette on the gleaming ice were not one, but three foxes. Three big, strong, agile foxes that we would quickly determine were two dogs and a slightly smaller vixen. As the light slowly lifted we could see them clearly through binoculars, their flowing bushy tails, their trim, lightly placed pads, their pert, A-frame ears and pointy muzzles. And then they began to dance.
These were no mangy town foxes, not feral dustbin scavengers eking a pauper’s living from larceny, these were full-bodied, densely furred, handsome hill foxes with wildness pulsing through their veins. Dawn gathered and spread. A wren prattled peevishly somewhere below us and from a birch tree a robin’s thin tinkle sliced through the silence. Daylight was spilling down the glen like a flood tide so that we could see the glowing russet of the fox coats and the star-like tips to their tails. And they danced. Still out on the ice they danced and danced. They pounced and rolled, skipped and chased each other in circles and figures of eight, round and round, back and forth, now the two dogs mock fighting, now the two of them chasing the little vixen’s every twist and turn, nose to tail. What we were witnessing was a pageant as old as the hills, I’m sure – a prelude to the mating game still a full month away. For a whole hour they spun and shimmied, bounced and flounced, skated, slithered and sledged on their bellies in an ethereal ice ballet all their own. A first streak of sunlight sliced through the hills and a second later they were gone, vanished into the gorse scrub as though they had never been there at all.