Tuesday 12 December 2017

The beautiful but elusive pine marten

FOXY-FACED: The pine marten hunts mammals and birds
FOXY-FACED: The pine marten hunts mammals and birds

Joe Kennedy

The country's most beautiful wild animal picked up a domestic hen's egg that had been left for it in hazel scrub and secluded woodland.

It did not linger to scoff it but scooted off with its prize find - to scramble or poach in a hidden den as the case may be! With pine martens (martes martes) anything seems possible.

The eminent zoologist Dr James Fairley (NUI Galway) has written that a study of the creature's diet in Co Clare revealed not just the usual rats, mice and voles, but ducks, water rails, pigeons, game birds, leverets and even carrion - a dead calf - was acceptable fare for marten meals.

And, of course, there has been the grey squirrel onslaught with a plus factor that widespread culling has meant a welcome respite for the native reds.

This particular marten with the egg awaited my return to the hard weather of the eastern seaboard, along with a bulging-eyed frog as big as a toad grinning at me!

Both were sent on iPhones from readers but unfortunately the video of the marten taken on a night camera could not be downloaded so a hoped-for still can't be reproduced here.

Martens have spread widely from the west and a road kill was recorded near Collon, Co Louth last year and the egg snatcher was filmed not many miles away in ideal squirrel woodland habitat.

The 'cat crann is most beautiful', as Gordon D'Arcy, naturalist and painter, describes it, has a long body (61cm) and tail with rich, dark-brown fur, black paws and foxy face with large parabolic cream-edged ears and a creamy-yellow patch on chin and throat. It is elusive, rarely seen in daylight - except jumping out of one reader's woodshed in Mayo - and can stalk and kill squirrels in the treetops. However, it keeps mostly to the ground, hunting small mammals and perching birds - and scouting hen-runs (though few country folk keep hens fowl now, except one old colleague who lost pheasant poults). It will eat insects when hungry and all wild bush fruits. The animal's great value a century and more ago was its much-prized fur and it was duly hunted almost to extinction.

There's another side to the foxy-faced creatures - they lead torrid sex lives, according to the naturalist Dr Norman Hicken. He writes that copulation is a "rather tempestuous affair" lasting about an hour during which the male drags the female about by the scruff of the neck "with much purring and growling". Mating is in July and August but implantation is delayed until mid-January with two or three kits being born in late March or April. They are weaned at seven weeks and after two months emerge from the den which may be an old wall crevice, cottage ruin, tree hollow or abandoned squirrel drey. Magpie nests are regularly commandeered.

The reader with the hidden camera, Paul G of Co Meath, tells me that the marten first took the egg carefully in its paws and then made off with it in its mouth. He mentions that this particular area has been "cleared of grey squirrels" in the past year. And, as for the grinning frog, I think its image was posted to welcome me back to this "wintry land" of Hibernia, as the Romans christened it. I have memories of cracking ice underfoot as I once stalked the bog at Rathdrinagh where another old colleague, Willie Kealy, now surveys the landscape.

Sunday Independent

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