Course Tutors Jeff Clarke and Paul Hill greeted the students on the first evening, for what was to prove a successful and memorable Small Mammals Course. Traps as well as plans were laid in preparation for a pretty intensive three days. The first morning round of the traps brought the anticipated haul of Wood Mice and Bank Voles and the entire group had their first opportunity to get to grips, so to speak, with these delightful little rodents and get to appreciate their different characters. This course is very much about learning how to handle such animals safely and as expected for most first timers, it takes confidence from repeated successful handling to make good progress. Thankfully all of the members of this group showed promise right from the off.
Now it was time to prep and set many more traps. We laid out a total of 97, all well provisioned with food fit for any shrew, mouse or vole.
After lunch we headed for the boggy uplands near Trinafour, where we practiced yomping across the soggy terrain. Despite the odd welly mishap, we soon made our target and began tracing the signs of the ‘Scottish’ Water Vole, this rotund vole is the size of a small rat and unlike its softy southern cousins seems to revel in this harsh upland environment. We found holes, latrines and chomped vegetation, but only Paul was lucky enough to spot one of the critters as it momentarily surfaced from a small runnel next to him, before diving away with a distinctive ‘plop’.
On our return we stopped to pick up a road casualty, a female Black Grouse, or ‘Greyhen’ that would become bait for one of our camera traps. We checked out the traps, and as expected it was all voles.
Post evening meal we settled in for our first Pine Marten stakeout. Our timing was out as our camera traps later proved that one Pine Marten had partaken of peanuts whilst we devoured our delicious fish pie. This called for a rethink and a retreat to the bar. Jeff returned with a few stalwarts from the BTO group later that night and struck lucky.
We awoke to an unforecast frost. Thankfully we had packed our traps with hay, food and covered them for extra insulation. Over the course of the morning we bagged and handled a succession of Bank Voles, Wood Mice and Common Shrews. The single Short-tailed Field Vole was evidence of a crash in their population since the previous year, the single Pygmy Shrew was pretty much par for the course. With so many animals to work through everyone was showing a rapid improvement in their handling skills, with very few fumbles and just one minor bite delivered to an unprotected thumb!
It was a truly stunning day and we decided to head for Glenshee in pursuit of the lagomorph of the glens. As we approached the car parks we spotted a freshly killed Mountain Hare at the side of the road, which we duly admired and then bagged as our second Wildcat bait. We climbed part way up Cairnwell and settled to eat lunch overlooking an area of high moorland. It was surprisingly quiet, so after eating Jeff set off across the moorland and within moments the first of several Mountain Hares bounded across the heather. Everyone eventually secured excellent views. As we descended we picked up a fresh specimen of a Red Grouse that had collided with the ski lift wires. Wildcat Bait No.3.
On our return we set up our camera traps and baits as well as a sand print trap and then carried out a further round of the mammal traps. Just before dusk we explored Glen Fernate in the mini-bus watching out for Red Deer, and finding Otter spraints. After our meal the consensus was to attempt another Pine Marten Stakeout. This one was more successful and we were entertained by an adult at the regular feeding site.
Later that night several of the group went for a walk under a blanket of stars and were treated to a show of meteorites.
Deep frost, pre-dawn and twelve quiet figures sit patiently waiting. It’s a ‘Wildcat’ stakeout. We tried a known area not far from the centre. After nearly an hour in penetrating cold the sun had risen and we decided to call it quits before frost-bite set in.
Our last full day and everyone was really beginning to get the hang of the handling, some even trying their hand at fur clipping and marking. Now it was time to test everyone’s cleaning skills. The majority then carried out some Owl pellet dissections teasing out, Field Vole, Wood Mouse and Common Shrew skulls. 3 others joined Jeff to retrieve a camera trap placed at the Water Vole site. The bait had gone and the camera had fired; sadly all it captured was wafting grass, before the freezing conditions overnight had drained the batteries. That same frost had stopped our other camera baits carrying far and we also got a nil-return there. We now set everyone a challenge to prep and set their own mammal traps.
Just before our evening meal we watched and detected 3 species of bat. Soprano and Common Pipistrelles and Brown Long eared Bat. After the evening meal Jeff gave an entertaining talk about his adventures and misadventures as a nocturnal naturalist and this was followed by a truly memorable nocturnal spectacle.
We tramped out into a frosty night to once more watch the Pine Marten, this time it obliged for a prolonged period, but the moment was made even more special by the blazing stars of the Milky Way. Just when it couldn’t get any better the Northern Lights put on a show. It was one hell of an encore. Not to be forgotten!
Pre-breakfast the following morning we had a final flourish assessing everyone’s setting skills and a last chance to practice those new found handling skills. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to old friends and new found friends.
Here are participant Kate Williamsons views on the course “I had a fabulous weekend and won’t be forgetting it in a hurry. I really loved the relaxed approach to learning. It was fun and I found the course really interesting and stimulating”.
Just for the record we directly observed 15 species of mammal during the 3 day course and recorded signs of 3 others.
Common Shrew, Pygmy Shrew, Common Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle, Brown Long-eared Bat, Wood mouse, Bank vole, Field Vole, Water Vole, Mountain Hare, Rabbit, Fallow Deer, Roe Deer, Red Deer & Pine Marten. We also had Fox scats, Otter spraints, and a freshly killed badger on the A9 near Killicrankie. For those who insist on a complete count we also watched the regular feral/hybrid Wildcat in the grounds of Kindrogan.