What wildlife gets up to at dawn at Glen Tanar

22nd August 2017

For the majority of us there are few occupational tasks which involve witnessing hot pursuits, chases, and in some cases murder, all before breakfast. Here, our Wildlife Manager gives us an insight into the wildlife antics that occur whilst most of us are still cosied up in bed.

By Colin McClean, Wildlife Manager

"There has to be a benefit in being up at dawn for so much of the year and it comes in the form of some good wildlife sightings. On most mornings you don’t see a whole lot of note but there are occasional gems. It has to be said that most top quality wildlife sightings involve sex or murder and that’s true in all of these.

Misty Dawn
A Scottish misty morning

I was driving slowly downhill on a landrover track in thick woodland when a brown hare lolloped onto the road in front of me. He was in no hurry that morning and jogged casually down the road as I slowed to give him space. With the hare now 50m in front and still moving at half his top speed, a pine marten appeared from the verge on the right and, ignoring me set off in hot pursuit of the hare. The marten was absolutely flat out and clearly intended breakfast, but perhaps with the noise of the engine the hare was unaware and just kept his jogging pace. I contemplated peeping the horn but with events happening so rapidly I hadn’t had time to decide whose side I was on. Like Switzerland I stayed neutral.  With the marten now 5m from contact, the hare turned casually to the right and disappeared off the road behind a tussock. Along the side of the road was a fence made of rabbit netting and herein lay the hare’s doom. 

058 Mountain Hare
Mountain hares can reach speeds of over 40mph

Even if Hare accelerated in the last seconds before Marten’s teeth met in his neck he would hit the fence and bounce back into the path of the pacey predator. No doubt licking his lips, the marten vanished at full tilt behind the same tussock. I stopped and waited for the screams. Hares can be very vocal when their end is nigh but strangely…. silence reigned. Then out from the tussock jogged the hare and, with no increase in speed, he lolloped off down the road again. Puzzled I drove forward to the tussock where the action had taken place. Of the marten there was no sign. I looked at the hare which finally turned in the road and acknowledged my presence. He winked at me. No he didn’t, that’s a complete lie, but it would have been good if he had. Then he too disappeared leaving me pondering. Now a hare has a powerful kick and I can only assume that as the marten closed drooling behind the tussock, the hare let fly and connected with his jaw bringing about a sudden change of attitude and menu. But I will never know as the crucial action was hidden from view.  

Pine Marten Glen Tanar
Pine Marten's have a varied diet including small mammals, birds, insects and fruit.

One nil to the lagomorphs but I had seen the opposite result much earlier in the year. This encounter was in the depths of winter and involved a mountain hare in full white pelage and a stoat which was also in full winter coat. There was very little lying snow this winter so both animals stood out like sore thumbs. The stoat first saw the hare in a grass park on the edge of heather moor. It set off in pursuit and I just thought he was being wildly optimistic as the gap between the two animals was a good 60m. The hare started to jog up the field at a pace I could have kept up with and I wondered why on Earth he didn’t just floor the accelerator and disappear over the horizon. The stoat kept running, the hare kept jogging and slowly the gap began to close. Over 5 minutes and many hundreds of metres the chase continued. The hare started to zig and zag as the stoat closed to 10m or less. Why oh why didn’t it just turn on the after burners and disappear? Maybe the stoat knew much more about the hare’s condition than I did, because its mad attempt at predation was beginning to look like a winner. The hare became more and more despairing in its movements and the stoat was relentless. The end was inevitable with the stoat grabbing the hare by the neck and then burrowing into its vertebrae. Now a mountain hare is much bigger than a stoat and quite a powerful animal in its own small way, but it stood no chance and soon the cries faded and the glen was quiet again. It was an impressive act of predation.  

In winter, stoats turn completely white except from a black spot on the tip of the tail.

Pine martens are very attractive animals and we are still getting used to their presence on Deeside. Their success in colonising parts of Scotland where they had been absent or extremely rare for many decades has been remarkable. Ten years ago we hardly ever saw them in Glen Tanar and now they are seen regularly and their distinctive droppings appear on every track. They are not without controversy because of their efficient predation of capercaillie eggs but they are undoubtedly beautiful. Currently I have two kits born this year and living near my house, which are very inefficiently laying nocturnal siege to my henhouse. One night, on hearing frantic clucking I rocketed from the house to find one small marten pulling a hen from its perch by the wing. The hen survived because the marten was a kit and I would like to make it clear that the marten survived too. On subsequent mornings, as I emerged for early morning stalking, fresh pine marten signs would greet my eyes but improved poultry security was holding firm. However I fear the worst when the kits grow, because one of my more brainless hens refuses to enter the house at night and roosts up a tree. The bookies are not offering long odds on her seeing Christmas.

However it was on a fine May morning that I had my best and strangest pine marten sighting. I was sitting in a birchwood on the edge of a lambing park when I heard a loud and persistent caterwauling which I couldn’t identify. Out onto the park tore a large pine marten going flat out around the edge of the field and whickering loudly. Within 10 seconds another pine marten appeared in hot pursuit of the first. They absolutely hammered around the edge of the field like Michael Johnson in his pomp. Sheep scattered in all directions but the martens seemed only intent on each other. The gap remained the same and both vanished over a drystone dyke. Sex or murder? You can bet it was one of the two but I have no clue which. There’s often quite a fine line between them in nature anyway!

Pine Marten
Pine Marten's gestation period is one month and the males play no part in rearing the young.

Currently the roe rut is beginning to draw to a conclusion. The red deer rut is full of drama and noise and is well known to the world. In contrast the roe rut is a secret thing taking place in quiet corners and quiet times and is much less noticed by Man. It does not lack drama or passion and it certainly does not lack pace. Chasing is a key aspect of the roe rut. Relatively slow paced chases take place between the buck and the doe, with the doe sometimes running in tight rings and the buck following exactly in her footsteps. In mid chase and for no apparent reason they will fling themselves down in a patch of bracken and contentedly chew the cud side by side. Then up and off again at some hidden signal. Fast paced chases take place between bucks with bigger lads hounding smaller lads away from their territories. These chases can be really aggressive and injury is clearly intended if the pursuant is caught. Fights between red stags are relatively rare and it is possible to go through a year’s stalking where stalkers are surrounded by roaring deer all day long without seeing a good even matched fight. However fights between evenly matched roe bucks are much rarer still and I confess to having never seen a good one.

Roe Deer
Male adult roe deer can weigh up to 25kg.

This year has been much taken up with glimpses of the merlin world as we set up photography for clients. However my best merlin drama came on yet another early morn, this time while grouse counting out on the moor. I was on the edge of a moorland plateau with a steep sided burn falling away below me to the glen bottom and my dogs were running about like loons in an attempt to flush grouse. It's definitely their favourite job of the year. Through the peat hags came a pipit with a merlin on its tail. The merlin beat its wings frantically and gained 5m above the pipit. It then rolled into a dive and stooped at the wee bird. The pipit was cool. At the last minute he just slipped gently sideaways and the merlin shot underneath. Up shot the merlin again and the dive was repeated. At the last second the pipit slide to the side and the merlin missed. Seven times I saw these manoeuvres repeated while both birds lost height dropping down the burn. Both disappeared around a corner and again I will never know the outcome. It was going to be a matter of who tired first.  

Merlin Male
Merlin are the UK's smallest bird of prey and are incredibly agile in the air.

In August all those early mornings begin to come to an end and we start to work the same part time hours everyone else seems to work. Ha! A lie in to six o clock is a thing of wonder and contentedness. The wildlife can murder itself alone for a while."