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The privilege of Pongo and Peaches

Outdoor Living

SHY TYPE The pine marten remains Ireland’s rarest native mammal.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

Marty the Pine marten has acquired a friend. He also has a new name and is no longer known by us as Marty, but has been rechristened as Pongo, which might be less dignified but is most thoroughly deserved.
The top of the rubbish bin had become his table, where we left a variety of food for his nocturnal indulgence. He has proven to be wary, mostly coming to feed only in the darkest hours when we are sleeping and only reluctantly allowing us to catch a glimpse of him. But when the food began disappearing soon after it was put out, we kept better watch and found a lanky and evidently half-starved Tom cat coming to help himself.
We left no food for a week and the cat moved along its aimless path, perhaps to somebody else’s bin. The world is full of feral cats. We cannot possibly feed them all. If they were rats we would work to eradicate them. But they are not, and merely to suggest such a thing would have cat-lovers up in arms, so we shall assume a neutral stance and skirt the issue.
Once the cat had gone, Pongo returned, determined to establish ownership of the bin lid once and for all. Martens scent mark their territory and reinforce this by defecating in prominent places so that any prospective rival could not fail to know he was trespassing. My own nose might not be as sensitive as that of a marten, but it certainly got the message.
Nor are my eyes as sharp. Pongo’s friends could doubtless combine their senses to ensure they were able to circumnavigate his little signpost droppings. It took one size-eleven deck shoe to discover where he had been. Pine marten scat has a most peculiar and enduring aroma that, while easy to transfer from one object to another, is most difficult to get rid of. Shoppers, I must confess there was no dead mouse beneath that supermarket freezer; it was I and my encrusted shoe.
Pongo’s friend has been christened Peaches, due to her beautifully orange-cream throat patch. We only met her once, in the dead of one dark winter’s night. She is by far the more shy of the two, and it will take time to get to know her. To have not one marten, but two, is a special treat.
It is at this time of year that baby pine martens are born, and as Peaches has not been seen, we assume she is holed up somewhere with a family to care for. If that is so, she will soon be hungry, and if she is, we know just the thing.
Researchers nailed a wooden box, rather like an outsized bird-box, some 15 feet up in a tree in the woods nearby, in the hope that either Pongo or Peaches would use it as a den. One reason it was placed that high was to prevent any animals within from being disturbed by inquisitive persons. There is, however, no certain cure for inquisitiveness. For reasons known only to themselves, somebody broke down a tall and stout hazel and used it to pry the lid off. Now it will hold nothing more than fallen leaves.
A long-distance neighbour called by recently, wondering how to shift a pine marten family from her attic. Access had been gained between tile and soffit, and even if that particular gap was sealed, the old cottage would have plenty more. The answer, I felt, was to call in the builders and replace the ill fitting parts, making certain that the martens were locked out rather than in. That would be an expensive undertaking and in this case was not a viable option.
Perhaps the use of some kind of herb would keep them away? My wife, a constant and impressive source of obscure information, tells me mice go to great lengths to avoid the smell of peppermint. Fleas flee from fleabane, mosquitoes buzz off in the face of citronella and a liberal scattering of lavender and eucalyptus can deter cats from using the flowerbed as a latrine.
While we’re on the topic, could there be a natural deterrent for folks of inquisitive nature? Now there’s a challenge; when the marten box is refitted we could scatter whatever it is that we discover around the place to prevent further unwanted attention. All ideas would be welcome.
In the meantime we shall enjoy coming to know our martens. The Vincent Wildlife Trust estimates the Irish marten population at about 2,700. While this indicates a strong recovery from very low numbers in the 1970s and ’80s, this is still Ireland’s rarest native mammal. We feel privileged to play host to two of them.