Nocturnal burglars

Outdoor Living

OPPORTUNIST A protected native species, pine martens help keep the rat and invasive grey-squirrel population in check, but they also have a sweet tooth.

A four-legged thief in the night, and other unwanted visitors

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

The woods hold more wood mice than I have seen before. A moment of quiet at dusk reveals them, though only as tentative rustlings through leaf litter, with just the occasional sighting to confirm their identity.
I admire them there, but once they set foot in the house action must be taken. Half a dozen have met their end in the back kitchen already, their appetite for peanut butter being their undoing. Years of experiment have proven this by far the best bait. Milk chocolate is probably in second place, although a tasty piece of ham wouldn’t be far behind. Cheese comes in way down the list.
Perhaps the town mouse, the house mouse, is altogether a less discerning creature, and would quickly fall for the charms of double Gloucester or even an old bit of Brie. These wood mice are connoisseurs, feeding on choice wild fruits and tender shoots. Why they should be attracted by the smell of my cooking is beyond me.
Perhaps I do myself a disservice for another guest, perhaps lured by the appetising aroma of curried beans with anchovies, came calling in the dark of night. Such humid conditions as have been ours through the last month mean a small window must be left ajar by night. It is a trade off, really. Too warm and stuffy and sleep becomes impossible. An open window allows air to circulate but also gives the occasional mosquito free admittance. As children we were taught not to swear, except at horseflies. As adults we make our own choices, and as far as I know, nobody has any real objection if I choose to include mosquitoes on the list of the damned. According to one report we have an astonishing 53 species of these annoying insects in this country. Which ones live locally I cannot say, for it is hard to tell them apart once they’ve had a slap.
So the window was open, just a little. At two or three in the morning I was half woken by a scrabbling noise from the next room, and then jolted into full wakefulness by what sounded like a young carthorse galloping down the hallway. As I lay there in the dark wondering who my visitor might be, I heard it run and skip from one end of the house to the other.
It found the peanut butter – the bit in the mousetrap, that is. I heard the trap move over the floor, then heard it snap. Whatever set it off jumped about for a few seconds and then fell silent. And that was that. In the morning the trap was far from where it had been set. It was still loaded with bait. There was no sign of my visitor.
I think it must have been a pine marten. I know they live locally, for I frequently catch sight of more than one and often find their scat, or droppings, along woodland paths or on stone walls. How do I know it is pine marten poop that I’m looking at? It has a purple hue, that is the key. My book tells me the sniff test would reveal the smell to be almost agreeable. I have tried this but don’t make it a habit; Mrs B already looks at me askew.
I doubt this particular beast will be in a hurry to call again, not after getting his nose rapped like that.
Not far from home a mink killed a rat at the side of a large barn and was dragging its victim across the road to consume it under cover, when it was struck by a vehicle and also died. I was seconds away and wanted earnestly to gather the body of the mink for a man who wanted such a thing, which would be stuffed and added to his collection. Nor had he merely asked – he had intimated that the perfect specimen could not be procured.
Of course there was more traffic that day. Yet all swerved just enough to the left as was necessary, as if they knew I wanted the animal intact. Then along came a tractor. The driver saw the sleek black body and slowed down before adjusting his steering so that both front and back wheels crushed my mink beyond recognition.
Back at home I have peanut butter smeared over the trunk of a tree, where only another pine marten or a red squirrel can get to it. And I have the night window closed.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.