WILDLIFE SPOTTING IN ARDNAMURCHAN

This region of western Scotland is arguably the most bio-diverse location for mammals in the United Kingdom.  The main aim of the trip was simple: to photograph and film wild pine martens at close quarters; but the chances of getting the opportunity to do this are usually remote.  However, I’d heard of a cottage that was featured on the BBC Wildlife series, Hebrides – Islands on the Edge, showing someone feeding wild pine martens.  This was too good an opportunity to miss.  So a few clicks of a mouse later and I’d found the charming bed and breakfast accommodation of Camus na Choirk.  The website promised daily evening visits at the window from these elusive mustelids- sounded too good to be true.

So shortly after Christmas, we found ourselves arriving in woodland beside the picturesque Loch Sunart, excited by the prospect of glimpsing martens, sea eagles, otters and porpoises among many other creatures that inhabit this secluded peninsula.  It really is a special location, Ardnamurchan, with ancient woodland mingling into boulder-strewn streams, desolate mountainsides and moorland, tranquil lochs and rivers, dense pine forest and pristine white sandy beaches.  You would struggle to find habitats as diverse anywhere else in the country.

We’d already had our first wildlife encounter as we got within a few miles of our destination, having taken an unintentional detour up into the barren hills above the sea.  As I cautiously manoeuvred the car up and down icy undulations of single-track road, I spotted a group of majestic red deer stags wandering over the rocky terrain.  A few hastily taken shots were taken as our car tried to slide back down the treacherous road.  They really do look so much more impressive with their antlers than their roe deer cousins which live around me in the Scottish Borders.

Our first evening of pine marten viewing began shortly after dusk and amazingly, we didn’t have to wait long with our noses pressed up against the window for our first visitor to arrive.  Sure enough, soon after biscuits were placed on the modified window-sill, we caught sight of the unmistakable creamy orange-coloured bib in the fading light.  A few minutes later, we had our first up-close view of a wild pine marten, as it bounded onto the feeding platform just a foot from us through the window.  As if this wasn’t impressive enough, the owner of the cottage then proceeded to open the front door and tempt them in with further offerings of biscuits.

I thought, there’s no way, but was reassured this was a well established ritual.  Once again, my scepticism was brushed aside as an adult pine marten crept and darted into the doorway and continued to tentatively take a biscuit from our host’s hand.  Soon after, we both hand-fed them, with up to four individuals coming into the house at different times.  Of the six or seven who regularly visit, a mother and one youngster live in the roof of her garage.  Photographing them was not as easy as it sounds, as they usually bolted in and out in a matter of seconds.

As we walked between the window and the doorway, watching them entranced, I had to keep reminding myself these were Wild Pine Martens!  They were all so at ease in the presence of the owner of the cottage and were even coming right up to us after some initial nervous hesitancy.  The following morning I checked my remote camera, which I’d attached to a butane gas canister in the front garden.  It had recorded an abundance of footage, showcasing their feeding acrobatics and advanced climbing skills.  After all, they spend most of their time climbing high in the trees.  They would either jump onto a tree stump or flower pot and then leap onto the wooden bench by the window.  You can view an amusing example of their behaviour below, involving biscuits.

On our second evening, we spread peanut butter, which believe it or not they have a real weakness for, on the feeding platform by the window and waited.  Once again, it wasn’t long before the adults appeared and began eating it.  At one point, I opened the door holding the pot of peanut butter and after just ten seconds of crouching in the front garden, the smell of it attracted one to me.  Before I knew it, it was at my feet having a sniff around me.  They were strangely quiet during all of our interactions, but do make a variety of sounds when they feel threatened or when communicating to each other.  Incredibly, we did hear them scratching at the front door once or twice as if to say, “feed me”!

As if all this excitement wasn’t enough, Sally then casually mentions there’s a wildcat that sometimes visits her garden!  On the second day as we walked to a very scenic area of beach called the Singing Sands, I did come across what could have been a wildcat scat, but you can’t be sure without D.N.A testing.  Unfortunately, the same goes for Scottish Wildcat sightings, as there has now been so much interbreeding between the pure wild species and feral domestic cats.  One key indicator of a pure wildcat is for it to have a few dark rings around its tail.  They are also generally stockier than the hybrid variety.

Incidentally, Sally put out a chicken carcass on the second night beside the house and it had vanished within a few hours.  The discovery was made when her two dogs were let out briefly and the wolfhound appeared to chase something up a tree.  There were also visible claw marks in the flagstone outside the conservatory which was near to where the bait had been placed.

I also spotted plenty otter tracks on the beach, which is unsurprising, as they spend much of their time eating things like sea urchins and crabs here.  The tracks showed them foraging and then wandering further up the beach to a freshwater stream where they would rinse themselves of the salt.  They have also been seen in Sally’s stream beside the cottage.

Other wildlife attractions that can be seen around where we were staying include golden eagles, which have been seen flying right down to ground level in foggy conditions when spotting prey becomes almost impossible from height.  From her conservatory, you look out onto a vast, precipitous rock-face where sea eagles are known to have nests.  More unwelcome wildlife in the area includes mink.  If they can be isolated into areas where they don’t harm bird populations, I think they should be allowed to stay as long as their numbers are managed.

Our third day took us to a very comfortable wildlife hide near the village of Strontian, where we spotted two grey seals within ten minutes.  Judging by the visitor book comments, it’s also a great location for seeing otters.  The only other animals we saw there was an eider duck and a heron, but a great vantage point nonetheless.

So it was a very satisfying and memorable trip and somewhere we’re already eager to return to for a longer stay.  Maybe next time we will capture footage of the mystical wildcat….

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