The Scourge of the Glen

Our meeting point was a narrow track just outside Aviemore. The light was beginning to fade and the moon shone in a clear sky, fringed by a sprinkling of stars. We threaded our way up the track, keeping an eye out for roe deer in the surrounding fields, and eventually reached the hide: an impressive building with large windows running along each side. The interior was luxurious; carpeted flooring, posters adorning the walls and above all, heating! It was indulgence that I hadn’t had the fortune of experiencing in a lot of hides. This one was positively posh.

Once inside, there was the habitual jostling for the best space as politely as possible. The guide always says that the animals may come from any direction, but we all know some spots are usually better than others. After we were all settled, our guide James left the hide to distribute the food. He explained the importance of only providing a supplement to the animals’ diet to make sure they didn’t become reliant on human assistance. On the menu tonight was a selection of peanuts, raisins, dollops of peanut butter and the ultimate prize: an egg.

So what were we hoping to see at this time of night? To Victorian gamekeepers, they were the “scourge of the glen”, known for stealing the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds. In my opinion, they were on par with the unicorn – a creature so stealthy and elusive that although they’re relatively common in Scotland and doing well there, they are very rarely seen. Coming to a hide dedicated to seeing them is your only semi-reliable chance, but of course nothing about wildlife is ever guaranteed. I’m talking about the pine marten.

Photo: Jai Redman

A member of the mustelid family with otters, stoats and weasels, pine martens are cat-like and forest-dwelling. Their coats are a rich, chocolate-brown and each animal has a unique pattern on their bib ranging in colour from yolky yellow to almost white. Pine martens are adept at dispatching grey squirrels, which are slower and less agile than reds. The latter have evolved alongside martens and know how to evade them, which is why there are no grey squirrels in the Highlands and plenty of reds. It’s interesting to think that if pine martens had been abundant across the whole of the UK when grey squirrels were introduced in the 1870s, would we have such a drastic problem with this invasive rodent today?

Once the food was in place, the wait began. Not only were we hoping for martens but also badgers, owls, a deer perhaps. It was a complete lottery, which made the whole thing incredibly exciting. The light was fading fast and my camera struggled to cope. Cranking up the ISO caused a sandstorm of grain to fill the screen, but I wasn’t planning on prize-winning photos on this occasion. This was one of those times when, more than anything, I wanted to watch.

After a short while we had our first visitor. Out of a knot of tree roots came a wood mouse. It appeared as though time had been sped up – the mouse zoomed out into the open, seized a peanut and retreated into its shelter within what seemed to be the blink of an eye. He or she entertained us for a while but before long it was quiet again.

Gazing outside into the dark clearing roused a slight feeling of unease. The longer I looked, the more my eyes played tricks on me. Shadows took on the appearance of strange shapes appearing to move on their own. Coupled with the expectant silence in the hide, the scene was close to eerie.

My eyes kept flicking to a shadowy patch just out of reach of the yellow spotlights. Beyond it the ground dipped into a shallow hill that plunged into complete darkness. I kept picturing a marten cresting the hill and trotting along the track for the tempting egg. I thought if I imagined this hard enough, it just might happen. I appreciated this fantasy had an undeniable whiff of desperation about it.

Suddenly, a flash of pale wings caught my eye. I glanced up and watched a scene unfold in slow motion. A bird catapulted through the air, wheeled tightly around the mouse’s tree and swept straight past the window. A blink-and-miss-it moment. For a few seconds I was stunned. I’d never seen a tawny owl before, and couldn’t believe how small they seemed! Small, yet incredibly skilled hunters. It really was a privilege to get nocturnal wildlife encounters, especially scenes as dramatic as a high-speed fly-by from a tawny.

After that exciting moment, there was a distinct lack of life for quite some time. It was still early days, I reminded myself, eyes flicking once more to the shadowy patch, there was time yet. I leant forwards on my stool, peering so close to the window that my breath fogged up the glass. Martens could approach from anywhere, and being so dark they would be completely concealed apart from their trademark bib.

The other visitors coughed, switched seats, paced up and down and chatted in hushed whispers. Meanwhile, I was glued to my stool. Far from blessed with social prowess at the best of times, I refrained from making conversation and kept my eyes planted firmly outside – there was no way I was missing anything.

There was a sudden, hushed commotion in the hide and I peered to the side to see a badger had appeared. Badgers have terrible eyesight but an exceptional nose, and mainly use smell to discern their surroundings. The animal picked her way across the grass, fanning her snout over the ground like a metal detector. Tragically, my previous badger experience consisted of road kill and one that I had nearly killed myself when it ran out in front of my car, so to watch a real, live badger going about her nightly business mere feet away was such a treat.


After she’d polished off most of the nuts, the female was joined by a male. He was the same size, suggesting he was also the same age if not younger. Adult male badgers typically weigh a kilo more than females and are noticeably more muscular. The two animals completely ignored each other so there was no doubt that they belonged to the same clan. If they hadn’t, there would have been a serious standoff. The male cleared up what the female hadn’t found and one by one they left the way they’d come. The only evidence of their visit was a distinct lack of peanuts.


An hour and a half later, my enduring optimism was beginning to turn. I was conscious of the time and that our evening would eventually come to a close, marten or no marten. I started seeing more and more phantom animals out in the gloom. The moon was radiant and my eyes were drawn to its pure white hue. A lone bat darted over the roof of the hide, silhouetted briefly against the lighter sky before disappearing. How anyone got a decent photograph of a bat eluded me. To capture such erratic and rapid flight was seriously impressive.

I glanced over at the shadowy patch again and saw a pine marten staring back at me, beady eyes glinting in the light. My insides jolted and as quietly as could I exclaimed, “There’s one!” Everyone knew exactly what I meant and came hurrying in my direction with barely restrained urgency. I couldn’t quite believe what I was watching on the other side of a pane of glass.


James told us the marten was a female. Similar to badgers, males were larger and typically had broader faces. Many people underestimate a marten’s size when they see one, imagining something along the lines of a weasel or stoat. I was quite the opposite; the marten was smaller than I’d expected, smaller than most house cats. What couldn’t be disputed was how beautiful she was with her long bushy tail, sleek mocha fur, tiny button nose and white-rimmed ears. I fell instantly in love.

The marten crossed to the other window and we swiftly followed suit. She climbed up onto the table and munched through the peanuts. As stunning as she was, she certainly wasn’t the most ladylike when it came to eating. She took the egg in her mouth and, despite her sharp teeth, carried it delicately down the table onto the grass. After a quick readjustment, she lolloped out of sight.


We’d spent two hours in darkness and experienced less than a minute of what we’d travelled here to see, but the atmosphere in the hide could only be described as barely contained hysteria, in my corner at least. We made the unanimous decision to end our evening on a fantastic high. Not only had I had my first proper badger sighting, but I’d also seen a Scottish icon. I couldn’t have hoped for better.





Anagach Woods

After one day of the Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival, I had already ticked off 27 species. The morning started off gloomy so I wrapped up knowing that the Highland air would bite without a little sunshine. After a delicious breakfast I met my guide Sue and we set off. Our destination was Anagach Woods, only a five minute walk from the hotel. I knew it was my kind of place from the first glimpse: dense evergreen trees, a winding trail and the lyrical murmuring of birdsong. The harsh, icy breeze that made the eyes squint and the neck shorten completely disappeared once we strolled past the first few trees.


Anagach Woods were planted in 1766 using young pine trees dug up and transported from the old Caledonian pine forest of Abernethy. A few of these original trees are still standing today; wizened goliaths surrounded by waxy saplings. Throughout Anagach are deposits in the form of fluvio-glacial ridges, raised beach sands and gravel deposits dating back 10,000 years to the Ice Age. “Fluvio-glacial” refers to the meltwater created when a glacier melts.

Within ten minutes of entering the woods, I had my binoculars trained on a red squirrel -tail and hands poised in the classic pose as it nibbled on a peanut. A completely peanut-based diet causes a deficiency in red squirrels, so the rangers fill their feeders with a special mix to keep the squirrels’ diet balanced. Whether the animals follow the regime is another thing entirely, and they don’t. They prefer to pick out the peanuts with the steely determination of a child eating around their vegetables.


It’s impossible to dislike red squirrels. (Personally, I have no quibbles with greys either – they’re not inflicting reds with the pox with any malicious intent, nor did they ask to be brought here.) Reds have the eye-watering cuteness of babies their entire lives, coupled with boundless energy. We watched two up in the tree, neither tolerating the other’s presence. After a brief, silent stare-down, a ferocious squabble broke out. In the blink of an eye, two orange flashes flew up the tree, twirling around the trunk with scrabbling claws. The victor was soon perched proudly on the feeder shelf – stuffing head, front legs and one back leg inside to grasp the prize.

We ventured further into the forest. Each time a branch quivered or a chirrup sounded, I scoured the canopy for a particular little bird with a very impressive Latin name. Lophophanes cristatus is mostly confined to ancient Caledonian pine forests and Scots pine plantations. On the RSPB map of the UK, this bird’s presence is indicated by only a small patch in the Highlands of Scotland. A member of the tit family, it sports a magnificent punk hairdo.

Photo: RSPB

I had my sights set on the crested tit. As small as the far more common blue tit, the “crestie” is a firm favourite among Grant Arms guests and features on many wish lists including my own. My main objective during my time in the Cairngorms was to see a pine marten (dream big, I say). Or, if that dream turns out to be a little too big, I will happily settle for any new species.  I kept my eyes peeled for cresties but sadly they eluded us that morning. Sue said that at this time of year they would be right at the top of the trees gathering nest material. When those trees stretch to dizzying heights of around twenty metres, spotting a tiny bird in the dense canopy would certainly be a challenge.


Despite the crested tit playing coy, we were treated to a lovely showing of a buzzard. Buzzards are one of those species that I sometimes underestimate. They don’t tend to get me too excited – especially for that one split second when you think you may have found an eagle – but that morning in Anagach I saw a buzzard land for the first time. Up in the air and bleached out by the sun, it can be hard to make out specific detail, but as the raptor perched in the pines, I could admire its snowy white chest – as soft as an owl’s – with speckled markings that gave it the air of a regal monarch’s gown. The buzzard preened its feathers for a while before taking to the air and melting into the trees. It was a fitting way to summarise the forest habitat: a creature can be there one moment, and vanish the next. Forests are irresistible to me, and Anagach easily became my new favourite.




Checking in

I arrived in Grantown-on-Spey at night, so couldn’t see much of the Cairngorms wilderness that pressed heavily on both sides of the winding road. I glimpsed darting rabbits and the elegant form of a pair of deer, but there must have been dozens of other creatures concealed by the dense evergreens.

My accommodation, the Grant Arms Hotel, was beautiful; a formidable building of stone and wide sash windows that could easily be the set for an elaborate period drama. Also called the Wildlife Hotel, the Grant Arms provides guests with easy access to a range of reserves of all different habitats. When I checked in, a large notice board stood pride of place in the foyer, full of lists of upcoming events, guidance on watching wildlife – including the magnificent capercaillie – and sign-up sheets for the week’s guided walks and field trips. An impressive puzzle adorned with a picturesque nature scene lay finished nearby. On the walls were images of puffins, ospreys, black grouse and, in my room, a beautiful fieldfare. I’d never seen so much wildlife-related decor and I absolutely loved it.

As I unpacked, I felt a thrill of eager anticipation for the week to come. I’d never stopped in the Cairngorms before but only passed through, so I couldn’t wait to sample some of the incredible wildlife. I had my sights set in particular on the pine marten – an elusive and nocturnal member of the mustelid family. If I was going to fulfil my New Year’s Resolution and see one in 2019, the Grant Arms Wildlife Book Festival was my best chance.

The Wildlife Hotel

On The Wing has been quiet recently, not for lack of inspiration but for lack of time. Over the past few months I’ve been busy with a few different projects. I’m close to finishing an annual report for SEZARC, outlining the highlights of their work in 2018. I’ve also moved part-time into the library where I’m filling notebooks with scribblings about Siberia, Russian megafauna, native tribes and the mysteries of shamanism. All this is for my book idea and the more I read, the more I need to read. It’s a constant cycle of finding a book, reading something fascinating and looking up similar books to find out more. I’d love to eventually start the actual writing process, but so far I’m waist-deep in other people’s books and loving every minute.

All of this work has meant that I’ve neglected my camera and seen most of my local wildlife from behind glass recently. However, this week brought the perfect opportunity to get back outside and into nature. It’s the Wildlife Book Festival at the Grant Arms in the Cairngorms. Also called the Wildlife Hotel, the Grant Arms is a beautiful Victorian building within easy reach of dense pine forests, boulder-studded rivers and sweeping mountain valleys. In other words, the perfect place to celebrate British wildlife.

It feels fantastic to be back out there with binoculars around my neck and a crumpled notebook in my hand. It also helps to be in such a stunning location. St Albans is nice, but when you’re woken to the sound of squealing oystercatchers and only need to walk for five minutes before hitting a thousand acre wood (check mate Winnie the Pooh), there is simply no contest.

It’s so easy for me to get caught up in work. I get so engrossed that I forget to ever switch off, which makes this week a very important break. It’s a little telling that I need to travel five hundred miles from home to take that break, but when the scenery is this pretty, I’ve figured it’s alright.