During a recent weekend in Aviemore we explored some of the few remaining patches of the now disconnected Caledonian pine forest. Having already taken in Loch Garten and it’s surrounding area we decided to visit another patch nearby; the Rothiemurcus estate.
Owned by the Grant family for over 450 years before being sold to the Forestry commission in 2014 the estate spans over 5,000 acres from the River Spey to the Cairngorm plateau with the majority of this area being covered in pine forest which is home to some of Europe’s rarest wildlife like Scottish Wildcats.
The estate is also home to Speyside Wildlife’s purposefully designed hide, giving you an opportunity to see badgers and pine martens up close! Having booked spots at the hide for later that night we thought we should explore the area so we knew how to get there after dark but also to see what else the estate had to offer.
As you pull into the car park of Loch An Eileen after following the winding single track road you can’t help but notice the rush of life around the feeding stations on your left. It is packed with coal tits, blue tits, pheasants and other birds busy eating.
It is also a busy place for red squirrels. We counted three different reds at one point all scurrying about jumping from tree to tree chasing one another and also acrobatically poaching nuts when they had a minute.
Although we could have stayed the rest of the day watching the squirrels it was getting later in the afternoon so we thought it best to follow the path into the estate to see what else we could see.
As the path opens up you are treated to the incredible view across Loch An Eilein.
Unfortunately we hadn’t given ourselves enough time to go on a walk around the edge of the loch. Looking around, we saw a trampled route into the forest and we decided to follow it.
It led us to a clearing in the forest where we discovered a shed next to an old stone wall with feeders dangling from old trees laid out like an assault course. We both thought that this was a Pine Marten hide and decided to stay to see what came out as it got darker.
We put some nuts we had bought in various small piles around the branches and sat against the stone wall waiting.
First in were the birds.
It’s always nice to see a cresty given there are only 1,000 to 2,000 breeding pairs in the UK restricted to the small segments of the ancient Caledonian pine forest that are left.
Before long we were joined by another Squirrel with lovely tufty ears.
This squirrel ran all around looking for more food..
And checking us out until..
He crept up behind us 🙂
Can I jump in your pocket stash of peanuts?
After our amazing time watching this cute little Red we decided to head off and grab some dinner before an evening in the Speyside hide.
We met our small group and guide at the rendezvous point when it was already dark and walked the path to the hide as a group; learning about the location and the wildlife we could expect to see. The hide was really nice and spacious inside with dim lights all around the outside to make it easy to see any visitors. The hide is divided into two sides with one side facing out onto a bird table style feeding station, this is in order to have a bit of breathing space between the species.
After a short wait we saw our first Badger.
Before we knew it we saw a Pine Marten bound up the hill towards us and easily climb the branches to reach the food put out. I think this was the first time either of us had seen a Pine Marten in real life! This one was thought to be the eldest female and she got to work straight away munching on all the snacks (peanuts, peanuts and more peanuts).
Once the second most common carnivore in the UK the pine marten was nearly driven to extinction in the early 1900’s due to predator control and the clearing of wooded areas but throughout this time its population has remained relatively strong in Northern Scotland. Now as more work is being done the population is slowly bouncing back in areas they haven’t been seen in decades.
When she realised there was an egg left out she grabbed it and bounded down the table with it in her mouth to eat in peace elsewhere!
By this time the badgers had arrived en masse around the other side of the hide to hoover up all the nuts available.
When the badgers weren’t looking a tiny field mouse was scurrying about eating what remained of the nuts.
A very brave move considering field mice are often food for both Badgers and Pine Martens!
While we had been busy watching the mice and the badgers another marten had turned up to feed on the other side of the hide.
This was a female yearling from the group. She didn’t stay long, only stopping for a quick nibble before darting off. This really is what made it so special to see Pine Martens, they are quite flighty as they must listen for predators over rustling leaves and howling wind.
Meanwhile Berty the male badger had wandered back around to this side of the hide, after he realised there was still peanut butter in the tree he was quick to show off his party trick.
Once he licked the bark clean he climbed backwards down the tree! Not nearly as graceful as he was on the way up, he almost fell off when his claws slipped.
Just as Berty reached the bottom safely we could make out an odd shape in the grass which looked like a Meerkat poking its head above the grass but was in fact another Pine Marten. This time a young female kit.
She made herself comfortable and started to munch away.
By this point the badgers had all disappeared so she was perfectly happy to sit and eat for a while.
Pine Martens are quite solitary and come to the hide to feed separately whereas Badgers arrive and feed as a group which meant there was always lots going on and our 3 hour visit flew by.
Not long later she decided she had had enough and in a flash disappeared into the night. We all waited for a little while longer but with no badgers, mice or martens in sight we all agreed to call it a night and made our way back to our cars still buzzing from what we had just seen!
Our top tips;
1.) Rothiemurchus is huge! So unlike us give yourself plenty of time to take in all that the Rothiemurcus estate has to offer, including feeding red deer, wildlife photography trips and ranger led safari trips or simply walking around Loch An Eilein.
2.) When you visit make sure you take some nuts with you for those little reds and crested tits but set it out somewhere easy for them. Cresty’s get their feet stuck in the bird seed balls netting and although they will eat peanut butter it makes the beaks stick together so stick to loose food and put it somewhere easy for them.
3.) There is a £2 charge to park in the Loch An Eilien car park so make sure you have cash on you otherwise you will find yourself heading back into town to get some. Your £2 will also get you a useful map of the walks you can do around Loch An Eilein which is always handy.
Thanks for reading.
Kirsten and Elliot.