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Pine marten, come dine with us

Outdoor Living

WELCOME VISITOR Once one of Ireland’s rarest mammals, the charming pine marten has made a remarkable comeback in recent years.

Country sights and sounds

John Shelley

We had known about our guest for quite some time. We thought we could smell him, for one thing, and although he didn’t leave too much mess after meals he wasn’t scrupulously tidy. He had, in fact, hauled rubbish from the bin on numerous occasions, leaving us perplexed as to how the wind could possibly have lifted the lid and scooped out half the contents. On top of that, he had definitely been using one corner of the garden as a toilet.
An old Tom cat moved in from up the road, where cats have been known to abound; that was the consensus. The dog seemed to agree. After suffering the indignity of being forced to suckle an orphaned kitten, cats have become firmly established as Public Enemy Number One. The merest suggestion that one might be hanging about the place sends the poor mutt into paroxysms of confused rage. Filled with murderous intent she races to all the likely places, barking threats and curses.
I should have known better, of course, but it wasn’t until I found a series of two-inch long footprints in soft mud that I came to know the identity of our visitor. There they were, as clear as day, with five forward-pointing toes (a cat has only four), and each one tipped with a tiny claw. Pine marten.
We’ve had pine martens in the garden before, but infrequently, and we know they inhabit the woods ’round about, for we’ve been fortunate enough to catch occasional glimpses of them. However, this individual has been making nightly visits to us for some weeks. If we feed him well he will stay and provide us with a little winter entertainment.
We didn’t have long to wait for that to start either. Two nights ago an excited call came from the kitchen. ‘Look, Look! There’s something in the bin!’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I just put the rubbish out.’
‘No, do come and look – the lid’s moving...’
I went to see, and sure enough the lid was moving up and down as if the wind was beneath. Then it raised two inches and a slender snout appeared, followed by two bright and intelligent eyes, then a pair of cream-coloured ears and two feet of serpentine, chocolate brown fur that terminated in an almost black and very bushy tail. The animal flowed through the slight opening and sat up to take a look at us crowding in the window, and then simply vanished. There was no fear, no panic, nothing more than indifference. If we wanted to stare we could, but Marty, as we have named him, wasn’t going to play to the gallery.
He (we think Marty is male on account of his size) is quite the most beautiful of all our wild animals, for I never saw another animal so delightfully lithe. We are fickle though, and the arrival of either leveret or wood mouse, young badger or small bird, would topple his podium in the blink of an eye.
Once one of Ireland’s rarest mammals, the pine marten has made a remarkable comeback in recent years, largely due to extensive planting of trees. Newly established woodland makes ideal habitat for small rodents and songbirds, both of which are prominent in the marten’s diet. Developing plantations also support an abundance of berry-yielding shrubs and bushes that provide these sweet-toothed, omnivorous animals with an alternative food source.
Knowing well that our new friend has an interest in diverse foods, we have provided him with scraps of chicken and slices of ham together with bread and jam. So far he has cleared everything away. Tonight he has bread soaked in beef fat waiting for him. If we keep feeding him his confidence will increase and we shall begin to get to know him.
Stories abound of martens entering houses through open windows and misbehaving somewhat.
The main cause of concern is not that Marty might climb the curtains or scratch a hole in the back of the sofa, but that he will start to scent-mark the inside of the house as his territory. We know from experience how tenacious the scent of marten can be. It clings to everything like a damp and extremely odorous blanket of gas and, while not exactly foul in the way the fox and the mink are foul, it is uniquely impossible to get rid of.
Yet how could we ignore such a creature? We cannot. He will be worth every egg, every crumb of cake, every slice of sausage that he takes. Make way for Ireland’s best-fed marten!