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Pongo returns

Outdoor Living

BETTER DAYS Pongo the Pine Marten raiding a bird feeder in more sprightly times.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

Pongo is alive and well. After being listed as missing in action for weeks on end, he turned up in the garden at midday and went straight to the bird table to see if there was anything there he might eat. He was visibly disappointed to find nothing but a handful of muesli, which he tipped to the floor disdainfully before clambering down and snuffing through the mess too pick out a few bits of fruit.
I had been there all along, thinking of clipping back last years new growth on the apple trees, a cheese sandwich in my hand. I pulled away a small corner of crust and flicked it in his direction. He either saw it or heard it land, for up went his nose, his nostrils flaring as he homed in on the fragment with remarkable accuracy.
When I tossed him a small piece of cheddar he turned his head toward me and I could see how very old he has become. His eyes appear small and sunken, the fur around his muzzle thickly grizzled and the scars about his head more pronounced than ever. He moved with less grace than before, his steps somehow stilted and the curve gone out of his back.
I squatted down and he stared in my direction, though whether or not he saw me clearly I couldn’t say. At least the infection that had turned his right eye white seemed to have cleared up. I flicked another piece of cheese toward him and he came a yard closer to pick it up. Light snow whirled down from a leaden sky, flecking his thick winter coat with white.
“Hello old chap”. I spoke to him as he chewed at my offering, then dropped more pieces to draw him closer. He found each one by using his nose, waving his head from side to side until he was sure of its location then heading straight for it. When he came to within a foot of my hand I offered him the rest of my sandwich, thinking he might actually take a bite as I held it. He thought about it, too, but suddenly turned and swept away as if he had suddenly become aware of my presence.
We must feed him well now, for as long as he needs us.
I found further signs of another pine marten close to Moore Hall; a small coil of purple-stained droppings left on one of the fallen trees, a sort of signpost declaring that the woods there are private property and that all other martens should stay away.
The ruined house would make an ideal haunt for Peaches, if that scat was indeed left by the female that sometimes accompanies Pongo when he comes to raid our bins. She is likely pregnant. In fact, the last I saw of her she looked surprisingly round, although she probably won’t give birth until March or even April.
We found another marten strolling along the road perhaps half a mile from the house, this one about two thirds grown, slender and lithe, bushy-tailed and shining in the late winter sun.
It slipped into the undergrowth at the roadside, so I stopped the car about 50 metres on, switched off the engine and waited, trusting that the animal would be curious enough to check us out. And so it was. A neat, dark head appeared above the rough grass, then disappeared for a moment before coming back into view once more. Then I made the mistake of getting out of the car and it was gone.
Could this be one of Pongo’s own? It does seem likely, for a seasoned male wouldn’t tolerate the presence of a rival within his territory, which probably covers several hundred acres. Or perhaps it’s a young pretender to Pongo’s throne, evicted from his homeland further round the lake by his parents and searching for a place to call his own.
Although the country has more pine martens now than there have been for many years, there’s a long way to go before they reach their former numbers. The Vincent Wildlife Trust estimates they cover only half of their historical range, and are locally extinct in some areas.
Secondary poisoning, through eating poisoned rodents, constitutes a threat to their survival, as do speeding cars and the fragmentation of habitat, where tracts of scrubland are cleared for agriculture or development. We are fortunate, here in Mayo, in that we still have a good deal of relatively undisturbed territory where Pongo and his family can continue to thrive.
It is a privilege to have them about the place. More, it shows our land is healthy yet.