Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1

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Hands up who panic bought hens at the beginning of lockdown?

I know I’m not the only one. Now, hands up who has since discovered how much truth there was in the warnings that ‘the pine marten will get them’?

A pine marten will not need to be asked twice if it spots an open hen house door at dusk.

The first sign all was not as it should be in our henhouse was a low rumbling noise. I glanced up towards the window, half expecting a wheelie bin to blow past, but in an instant I was on my feet and racing towards the back door.

In those seconds, some part of my brain had registered there was no wind, that it couldn’t be a wheelie bin, that the outside light had come on, which means the infrared sensor had picked up movement and that I could see the pale tail-feathers of a hen on the other side of the ditch by the wee field, where no hen should have been at that time of night.

When I got to the henhouse though I paused. There was a hen in the open doorway and it seemed to be sitting quietly. Then I realised the glistening on the wooden ramp was not water and I rushed forward to tug open the roof of the wee house.

The bright black eyes of a large pine marten turned straight towards me. It was heavier and more muscular than they appear from a distance. It moved like water, flowing outwards in all directions towards an escape route.

I did not make any noise, but it knew it no longer had free rein and poured its sleek brown weight up the side, over the top and away into the darkness.

Pine martens were once rare in the Highlands. Centuries of being hunted for their coats, and for the risk they posed to Victorian game stocks, meant they were only occasionally glimpsed by the beginning of the 20th century.

Their return, however, was equally human-made. In his foreward to Polly Pullar’s book, A Richness of Martens, John Lister-Kaye of the Aigas Field Centre, describes how the spread of commercial forestry in the 1970s resulted in ‘a brief population explosion of voles, essential food for hen harriers, barn owls, kestrels, wildcats, foxes and yes, pine martens’.

Pine Marten. Photograph: Ian Sargent/Aigas Field Centre. NO F48 PineMarten © Ian Sargent
Pine Marten. Photograph: Ian Sargent/Aigas Field Centre.
NO F48 PineMarten © Ian Sargent

But as the new plantations grew and their canopies closed over, the vole population died off again, forcing the pine martens to travel out of the forests in search of food.

I was excited to discover pine marten scat, just a few days before, on the breezeblocks holding down the children’s trampoline, to glimpse it light-footing over the top of the stone wall in the spring, to watch it take tiny bounds across the grass below the bird table in the summer.

The sight of the animal that night did not fill me with horror. Instead, it caught my breath in a thrill. The pine marten has a beating heart, and a stomach, and a survival instinct.

I should not have expected it to pass on the open door of a henhouse. I do not blame it for eating the chickens. I eat chickens, for goodness sake.

That said, I will be shutting the door of the henhouse a little bit earlier tonight.

NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1

Pine Marten. Photograph: Ian Sargent/Aigas Field Centre.

NO F48 PineMarten © Ian Sargent