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Riding to the rescue: the pine marten, local hero

Friday 04 January 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, gripped by New Year nostalgia, takes a trip back in time to when he saw - he thinks - one of Britain's rarest wild creatures, a predator which could save one of our most popular mammals from extinction

THIS IS a bad time of the year for old codgers like me, a time to think back to the deep past rather than the immediate future. One of the reasons for that is that we can remember with crystal clarity some scene from fifty years ago - but have totally forgotten last week.

In the poor week for countryside news, a single report managed to bring back a magic moment when I was a lad of, I suppose, about ten. It must have been May, because Neddy's Wood was carpeted with lush sweeps of bluebells, and I can estimate my age because I was by then leader of the Neddy's Wood Gang, a position I was forced to relinquish at eleven when I went off to the grammar school.

pine marten
Pine Marten: Red squirrel saviour?

Why this ancient stretch of native woodland was called Neddy's we never knew - perhaps it had once been owned by a farmer called Edward, shortened to Ned - but being leader of the gang meant you had come up through the ranks and had proved your worth the hard way.

That, however, did not mean with your fists. Our gang was based quite closely on the local boy scout troop - where I had risen to the dizzy heights of Second in Kestrel Patrol - and we went in for positive play.

As leader, I would send out the youngsters to find me, say, a beech leaf of a wood pigeon feather. We knew which nuts and berries we could eat and the toadstools which were poisonous. We could name the species of virtually every bird's egg and the names of the few fish that lives in the stream which dissected the wood - bullhead, stickle back, stony roach - and even the difference between frog- and toad-spawn.

A modern day "educationist" - one of the ugliest words ever invented - would have called this a constructive learning module or some such tosh. We called it fun and I still remember quite clearly the lessons I learned then.

But one day in that bluebell May, something strange flashed through the treetops. It was too big to be a squirrel and the colour was all wrong: all squirrels were red in those days, at least in Neddy's Wood, and this was a brownie-grey colour with a distinct white chest and neck.

It seemed to be hunting in the rookery in a large sycamore and the birds were gathering into angry mob. Then it was gone, down to the ground behind the trunk so we could not see it clearly, and into the undergrowth. We never saw it again - and I have never seen anything like it since.

But it set me a challenge as leader. The younger kids, who could tell a rabbit from a hare and a stoat from a weasel, clamoured round demanding, "What was it, what was it." And, of course, I didn't know - a terrible loss of face.

I had no choice. The following day, I set off on my bike to the local reference library and spent an hour or so studying pictures of British mammals. There it was: a pine marten, a ferret-like creature with that distinctive white throat. Unlike the ferret, however, this beast is an expert climber.

It was, in those days, quite common in Scotland but rare south of the border. Because it is a ferocious predator - of birds eggs and ground-nesting pheasant and partridge eggs in particular- it had been shot to the point of extinction by gamekeepers. That was the bad news.

What I love about this story is that it is a case of nature re-asserting itself over the errors of Man

The good news, it was revealed last week, is that scientists have discovered that the pine marten could possibly be a the natural answer to one of our wildlife's most pressing problems: the annihilation of our native red squirrels by invading American greys, a long known disaster but, until now, one with virtually no solution.

Researchers have discovered that in area the pine marten has re-colonised, reds are making a comeback and greys are disappearing. And the reason: pine martens prefer to hunt on the ground, where greys spend much of their time, whereas red prefer to remain high in the foliage.

Ipso facto, the ruthless martens are having a feast of grey squirrel, which could be very good news for the two known remaining colonies of reds here in the Yorkshire Dales: around Kilnsey in Upper Wharfedale and one in Wensleydale which is being protected by Yorkshire Dales National Park wardens.

What I love about this story is that it is a case of nature re-asserting itself over the errors of Man. Old Ma Nature can still pack an environmental punch if only we allow her to get on with it. Welcome to 2008, Mr and Mrs Pine Marten - and bon appétit!

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