Tree Weasel

It’s not that I’m intolerant of the fluffy things in life, far from it. It’s just that right from the very beginning (and I’m thinking back to my childhood here), mammals have always been the easy sell. Folk immediately ‘get them’. After all, we are one, and in just a few seconds, staring into a whiskered face and a pair of wet, watery eyes, we start to see things we’re familiar with. We relate to our fellow mammals in a way that we struggle to do with species that hang from different branches of the phylogenetic tree. I have made a career as a PR agent for invertebrates, herptiles and the less easily liked, the evolutionary underdogs, if you will. If for no other reason than they need friends and a little bit of understanding. So while everyone else fawns over fawns and panders for pandas. I went in the other direction.

I am, however, pretty much ‘into’ anything wild and alive. While the bug boy part of my persona is better known thanks to the needs of the media, the reality is I’m as much into mammals as I am woodlice.
Case in point. The best thing that happened to me in 2022 involved a mammal (although, if I’m frank, it shares the spot with the snow flea).

Just over a year ago, my family and I opened a new chapter in our lives and moved to Scotland. We are now based in the Cairngorms national park, living in a small highland town – Grantown on Spey. We are urban but within a short walk of everything this area is known for; I’ve already got Golden Eagle, Red Squirrel and Crossbill on my garden list.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, we experienced the same cold snap that befell the rest of the country, and the entire landscape was smothered in snow. A classic winter landscape is a gift for anyone into wildlife as the movements of every creature become scribed in the snow for all to see. The snow betrays the footfalls of everything abroad, from wood mouse to Badger.

Robin, Dunnock and Blackbird Tracks

My garden was no exception – although sadly, being urban many of the ‘old familiars’ of my Dartmoor garden don’t occur. So no foxes or Badgers. But there were a few wood mice; tiny hopping tracks, sets of three dints on the snow surface, the regular plodding string of round pug marks of the neighbour’s cat, the shuffling foot-dragging of the wood pigeons and the odd squirrel trail, not dissimilar to a slightly bigger wood mouse in the arrangement.

No surprises so far, and then I saw them. Sets of four prints separated by clean snow, sometimes a leap or bound of some 180 cm, sometimes less. I back-tracked to find whatever made them had leapt up the garden fence in one bound, had scuffed around in the herbaceous border and excavated a couple of windfall apples missed by the Blackbirds. Then it leapt up the bird-feeder pole, knocking the fat ball cage off in the process. The bouncy, springing gait suggested a long, lithe body, the closest I could get to, in my experience, were the tracks of an Otter.

Mystery tracks. The animal leaps, showing a cluster of four plus clear tail drag.
Classic mustelid. Sets of four bounding prints.
Long heel, ‘spidery’ toes and claws all show clearly.

I had had my suspicions that the owner of these tracks had been before. The bird feeders had, in the past, been ravaged (at the time, I’d put this down to my determined rooks), and something larger than a Blackbird had also been digging around the base of the shed and in the compost heap. But now, these tracks in the snow piqued my interest. Could it be? No, surely not.

The mystery tracks up close. Note the animal has a long heel and shows non-retractable claws.

Part of my reluctance to accept the obvious candidate is that I’ve never seen its whole track before, the odd footprint in the edge of a highland puddle, maybe? But the snow tracks were less than clear; I certainly couldn’t see the shape and pattern of the individual prints as the continual winter flurries had filled in the deep holes in the snow made by the nocturnal visitor.

So what did I know? It was agile and springy, bigger than a squirrel with feet more or less cat-sized, had an eclectic omnivorous diet, and was active at night. Given where I live, the answer is kind of obvious… but I had to see it to be sure. So out came the trail cameras. It’s been a long time since I worked with Bushnell, and my armoury of cameras turned out to be a bit battered and broken. Admittedly they are pretty old NatureView HD’s that have had a lot of use over nearly 10 years. Out of the five cameras, only 2 seemed to be working. A fact that I had to work out by trial and error.
Frustratingly, the trackmaker had returned every night. Several cameras failed to trigger, the ‘flash’ didn’t come on, or the memory card corrupted – the usual set of old camera trap issues. Eventually, however, I whittled them down to two functional units. A day later, I got the result I was suspecting but not allowing myself to quite believe.

Going through the images over my breakfast coffee – I nearly burst when the first unmistakable image of a Pine Marten bounded through the shot.