Have you ever spotted an elusive tree tat lurking about on your smallholding? In Ireland, they are our rarest mammal; cat crainn in Irish-- ’tree cat,’ martes martes in Latin, pine marten in English.

Although they are regarded as a naturally elusive creature, our experience has been that if you live in a marten stronghold and spend plenty of quiet times outdoors you’ve a decent chance of seeing one. We've even seen a pine marten scampering back and forth across our drive numerous times while we sat out enjoying an afternoon glass of wine, dogs asleep by our side!


Although pine martens disappeared from most of Ireland in the 20th century, they held on in some areas in the west; our Wild Cottage smallholding in County Clare seems to be such a haven.

This winter a pine marten has been vividly demonstrating its skills as the ‘tree cat.’ This began when I noticed unusual disturbances in the bird feeders: a seed feeder with the bottom pulled away, a heavy coated-wire fat ball feeder with signs of intense gnawing, a cheap wire nut feeder split open.


I didn't suspect our regular visiting fox, for although she's full of mischief she never goes for the hanging feeders. Neither did I suspect our red squirrels - they've been sticking to the trees and seem quite shy. Nor did I suspect a rat - I didn't think it could shimmy up the metal pole of the feeding station, and thankfully the natural predators seem to keep rodents in check. Maybe a stoat? Would their teeth be strong enough to tackle the thick coated-wire feeder? No, it must be a marten. Bigger size, bigger teeth, able to climb the pole and reach the feeders from above.

Out came the trailcam, pointed to spy on our mystery visitor. The first night, nothing. (Perhaps because the batteries were flat!) The second night, success! A pine marten climbed, dangled, fell, leapt around and generally used the feeding station as a jungle gym cafe. Since then s/he has also been back in the daylight. As an amateur photographer I am especially thrilled.


At Wild Cottage, our smallholding is for wildlife as much as for us. We enjoy providing wild creatures with a safe place to live and *a bit* of additional food. The pine marten only comes to eat occasionally, but we couldn't let it gobble all the food or destroy all the feeders. Solution: we’ve kept the chewed-open nut feeder and put a fat ball in it for the cat crainn. For the birds, we purchased two squirrel proof feeders; so far the pine marten has not breached their defences. Even if (when!) it does, we will just replace, and rejoice in the antics of our acrobatic visitor.

My partner and I moved to Wild Cottage in March 2016, renting it until the sale went through. Closing the sale took many anxious months, peppered by odd and traumatic hiccups, but by 2017 Wild Cottage was ours.


We had to first address the building itself. Wild Cottage is a traditional style Irish cottage with one main room with a huge cooking fireplace and bedrooms leading from that. No real kitchen, running water only installed in 2009, and all rooms rather chilly with some damp. We insulated the loft, put in double glazed wooden windows, and prepared for a kitchen area at one side of the main room.

Outside, we planted fruit and nut trees, looked at polytunnels, laid out a vegetable garden, and dreamt about a house cow with a few sheep. But in April my mother fell terminally ill and I flew off to care for her, with my partner joining to help shortly after. We didn't return until late summer.

Our homecoming was, of course, bittersweet. There was also culture shock. After months in a modern American apartment, the sight of the now completely, madly, overgrown acre surrounding a damp smelling, kitchen-less cottage was tough. I had one glorious last gasp of energy and designed an IKEA kitchen. Himself had a glorious burst of energy and put it together. We gloried in the beautiful kitchen, then collapsed for months.


New year, new start; yes, thankfully 2018 does feel different and new for us. We've purchased vegetable seeds in the firm belief that a raised bed veg garden will be ready this year. We've dessert cherries, a plum and a peach to plant, and we will reclaim the native wildflower meadow from the smothering grass. Excitingly, a Kerry cow expert is coming this week to have a look at the land and advise us on keeping this traditional Irish hill breed.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing is how the wildlife populating the area is interacting with our smallholding. One of the foxes is especially bold; watching us from a few metres away when we're outside, getting up to mischief (I've many stories!) and looking up at us standing at the cottage window looking at her! We've seen hen harriers, red squirrels, stoats, hares, badgers, bats and pine martens now occasionally visit the birdfeeder, sometimes in broad daylight.

These hills are rich with natural life, and it is foremost in our minds that any changes, from clearing brambles to acquiring livestock, be done in a way that might benefit, or at least not hinder, wildlife. We all live in an interconnected web; through smallholding in a nature-centred way we aim to cultivate that web, not add to the destruction of it.

You can follow the adventures of the pine marten, fox, and more on the @WildCottage Twitter account, and  at wildcottageireland.blogspot.com.


This article was first published in Smallholder magazine. Subscribe here or buy a copy from your local newsagent.