a fine set of whiskers


march 19 2017

the big five

Whenever I mention my passion for wildlife, I’m usually asked if I’ve been on safari. Then I’m asked if I’ve seen the “The Big Five”. I get bemused looks when I explain, that I’ve seen four of the five, but not yet seen a pine martin!

Our humble creatures

You see my interest in wildlife has always been for our own indigenous creatures. While the conservation of all wildlife is of critical importance, I’ve always worried that the poster boys of wildlife- worthy as they are- get all of the attention. I can’t help but think it’s because they appear rather more glamorous than our own humble creatures.

Safari actually means observing creatures in their natural habitat; it’s just that it’s usually associated with Africa. For me trying to find our shy really well camouflaged little creatures provides just as much excitement and challenge as the more exotic creatures, although thankfully rather less danger!

The Big Five

My “Big Five” are the water vole, the red squirrel, the otter, the mountain hare and the pine martin.  I will never forget the first time these charming creatures let me into their lives - with the exception of the pine martin which most recently let me sit in a hut in the Cairngorm Forest for 4 hours without an appearance! Such is life; the joy is just as much in the anticipation and it wouldn’t be half as much fun if they just rocked up every time you wanted them to. There’s always next time.

The water vole

My first water vole was in the River Derwent in Derbyshire. Sitting at the side of my Dad, a course fisherman, waiting to hear the tell-tale “plop” or see the unusual movement of the grass and reeds at the river side, followed by the marvellous V shape they make in the water as they flow effortlessly by. On a recent trip to the Cairngorms, I discovered there are very rare black water voles too, but the wind and snow stopped us seeing them on this trip.

It’s devastating that the population of these adorable animals has decreased by 90% in my life-time largely due to the expansion of the mink population.

The red squirrel

My first red squirrel was in Ullswater about 15 years ago when they were even less common than they are today. The Manager at the Glenridding Hotel doubted very much that we’d see one in the icy cold and snowy weather, but gave us a path to follow. We were up before breakfast, with no expectations but high hopes. Following a woodland walk by the lake and just 10 minutes away from the hotel a red squirrel ran in front of us at great speed. We followed him across the road, up a steep hillside and watched as he searched for his larder in the moss and bracken, finally ending up on a bird feeder in a garden.

My sister calls me the “squirrel whisperer” because now I’ve seen a red squirrel once I can’t stop seeing them. The same year a red squirrel ran in front of the car in Hesdin in France, we had one in the garden in La Rochelle and we’ve had lots of sightings since in Dorset, North Yorkshire, Formby, Northumberland and Scotland. The frequency hasn’t in any way affected my sheer delight when I chance upon these truly most adorable of little creatures, I doubt it ever will.

The otter

I cried happy tears when I saw my first otter in the wild, it was so unexpected and such a privilege, it was like he’d got up that morning and decided to make my day. I was on holiday in North Uist in the Outer Hebrides and had stopped to photograph the seals and their pups just off the Uist – Eriskay causeway. It was the first time I’d seen a “beware of the otters” road sign and I was thrilled that it meant they might be nearby.

Having photographed the seals I decided to cross the road to check-out the other side. I had literally just climbed on to a boulder to get a good view and a huge dog otter climbed out of the water in front of me, pausing briefly to shake off the excess water. I nearly fell off the boulder!

The wonderful thing about wildlife is that like the pine martin, you can be in what seems to be just the right place and the right time and they simply decide not to show up and then when you’re not even looking there they are right in front of you!  Just like the squirrel after that we saw otters all over the island and on many more occasions on other Hebridean Islands, but the feeling of utter privilege and joy never lessens.

The mountain hare

More recently and with rather more intent we set off to the Cairngorms to try to see mountain hares, still with hope but not expectation. With just a weekend and difficult terrain, we hired a guide who asked what we wanted to see – mountain hares, red squirrels and crested tits- and gave the usual warnings about no guarantees. As we drove to the Findhorn Valley a red squirrel ran along an eye-level bank at the side of the road, which was a very good start.

As the valley changed from pastoral scenery to more like a Jurassic park, we stopped the car to look for hares. My first ever sighting was through a scope of a pure white hare washing his paws, interspersed with huge yawns, it was just unbelievable.

In spite of my fear of heights we decided to try to get close enough to a hare for a photograph, inching slowly and painstakingly forward up the mountain side. The hare posed for long enough for the photograph, but he knew when I’d taken one step too far and disappeared up the mountain side at ninety miles an hour leaving me to inch slowly and precariously back down. As I looked back up the mountain, smiling, a golden eagle circled above; thankfully not close enough to the hare, that’s not a photograph I’d want in my collection.

The elusive pine martin

So now it’s just the pine martin that eludes me. But I know that with patience, the right time and the right place will appear, probably when I’m least expecting it and that’s good enough for me. The pleasure is just as much in the anticipation.

Nature is a gift that just keeps on giving and as Aristotle says:

“ in all things in nature there is something of the marvellous” – there certainly is !