Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

MY sister in the Scottish Highlands is an inveterate observer and recorder of her garden wildlife, just like me. The difference is that hers is rarer and, arguably, more exciting. For twelve years she’s been studying red squirrels that use her peanut boxes and bird feeders. Though colour varies with the seasons, often individuals have recognisable markings or particular behaviour so she can tell who’s who year by year. Naturally, she’s grown fond of them so it was with mixed feelings that she welcomed the next visiting species – pine martens. These aboreal relatives of stoats, each about the size of a cat with dark luxuriant fur, creamy bib and yellowish fringes to the ears, are just recovering from years of persecution. The first arrived on the nut box four years ago. Since then she’s seen five more individuals.

Pine martens have a mixed diet: nuts and fruits but also rodents and small mammals - including squirrels. They are skilled hunters and can follow prey into the treetops. Can one host red squirrels and pine martens in the same garden? Well – so far – yes. No doubt each could detect traces of the other but they have evolved together for millennia, avoidance the best strategy, so the squirrels visited at different times – until a week ago. Then, early one morning, she watched a pine marten and a squirrel peacefully feeding about 12 feet apart. Extraordinary!

We reflected on prey-predator behaviour. On the African savannahs, grazing herds will continue feeding as a casual lion strolls past; we’ve seen a fox skirting a rabbit warren while the residents, unfazed, sun themselves or nibble their supper. Prey animals seem to be able to tell when a predator is in hunting mode and when it’s not: an extra sense. In any healthy eco-system prey and predator numbers are naturally held in balance. Unfortunately, in UK few such systems survive: it is a man-made, man-managed environment.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our gardens. Small birds have fled farm and woodlands and congregated there, encouraged by our bird-feeders. So – there are more magpies, jays and grey squirrels too. But the main predator in our gardens is the cat, well fed so a recreational hunter not giving off the usual signals and ravaging the bird and small mammal population particularly now with so many inexperienced youngsters about. As responsible cat owners there is a partial solution. Keep pets indoors overnight. At the cost of some feline displeasure and added litter-tray chores, the carnage can be reduced.