Spotting the Beastie

The day that we saw the pine marten we also saw “The Beastie”. We (Mrs. Wow, older daughter, younger son and I) were holidaying in Ireland, in Sligo. We hired a couple of boats to try to catch the huge pike which lurk in the Templehouse Lake, so called because it dates back to the Knights Templar, but were caught in a squall and could not row the boats back against the wind. We drifted to the far side of the lake and were obliged to abandon the boats.

Temple House has been in the hands of the Percival family since the 17th century, and we telephoned Mrs. Percival to let her know of our predicament – being on the wrong side of an Irish lough can involve a long and difficult walk! She advised us how we should get back to the road and agreed to meet us in the car. Shortly before she arrived, we saw a pine marten cross the road in front of us. it was less than 20 feet away. I didn’t get a good view but my daughter, an accomplished artist, later painted a picture of it and there was no doubt at all.

We recounted this tale to Mrs P, clearly before we had identified our previous sighting as a pine marten, and she said “Ah! you’ve seen The Beastie.” We asked her more about this beastie and she said that in the 19th century one of her husband’s ancestors had brought some wild cats over from Scotland. These had bred, possibly cross-breeding with domestic moggies, and occasionally they could be seen. She said she hadn’t seen one for a couple of years, but had had a very good view of one down by the lake and had watched it for quite some time.

She invited us into the house to change into our dry clothes, gave us tea, and after admiring the 32lb pike in the glass case, we then went on our way. I was so intrigued by her story of the Beastie that I drove back along the road where she had met us, just in case we should see something else.

We drove slowly along the stretch in question and about 200 yards further on, we had left the woodland behind and were out into open country. I reversed the car into a field entrance to turn round and as we looked back, there, silhoutted against the green of the trees, was a large dark feline shape, I would say about the size of a greyhound. It loped across the road and disappeared into the undergrowth.

I have never seen a Scottish wild cat, but I believe them to be not much bigger than a domestic cat. Whatever it was that we saw was a good deal bigger, although of a slimmer build, than a domestic cat. However, some sources say that Scottish wild cats are generally smaller today than they were 200 years ago as a result of ruthless hunting by Victorian gamekeepers who were paid a bounty to catch and display the largest and most ferocious looking wild cats, so the gene pool became restricted to smaller specimens. Maybe the exports to Ireland were just that much bigger and survived in the wilds around Sligo?

Tadpoles

In early March I spotted some frogspawn in a slow-moving bit of stream fed only by the lake overflow in our local park. There was some there last year but I didn’t see any tadpoles – I think all the spawn was killed by a late frost.

This year, the spawn all hatched and for about a week all the tadpoles, thousands of them, stayed in about the same place, all wriggling just below the surface. They were well protected by lots of great reedmace stumps. Each day I took the dog to the park, so the tadpoles seemed to get bigger.

Then one day, just after Easter, someone had been into the water at that point, had pulled out a load of reedmace and dumped it on the bank. The water where the tadpoles had been was turbid with stirred-up mud and there were hardly any tadpoles – just the odd one swimming around in a confused state.

On the May Day bank holiday I was back at the water’s edge, looking at where the tadpoles had been, when some guy turned up with about 50 people, mostly children with a few parents, in tow. “I hope you don’t mind a bit of company,” he said to me, “We’ve some to do some pond dipping.”
“Someone has been here recently clearing out the vegetation,” I replied. “There were loads of tadpole here before they did that.”
“Oh yes, that was me. I wanted to clear out some of the old dead stuff so that we could get at the water more easily!”
I felt like drowning him. I haven’t seen any tadpoles there since.

On wasps and bees

When I kept bees (from about 1986 to 1997) I was occasionally asked to remove wasps’ nests and the like.

I was always disappointed in how feeble wasps seemed to be when it came to defending themselves against a marauding git armed with a veil and a smoker. I think this was mostly down to the fact that there are so few wasps (probably only a few hundred) in a nest when compared to the honey bee hive.

Bees are a completely different kettle of fish. A good queen honey bee can lay 3000 eggs a day and the average life of the worker in summer is about 6 weeks. By the time you get to July a really big colony might have 80,000 insects in it and they can be very determined – and quite daunting!

They often find their way into your overalls and veil. I think my worst sting was when one found its way into my bellybutton and stung me there. It was agony! Firstly, the sting went in right at the bottom of the crater. Then, of course, because bees have a barbed sting, the insect tried to pull away and couldn’t. I could feel its legs going round and round as it tried to escape.

There’s nothing to be done then but to close up the hive, beat a retreat and deal with the wounds. When the swelling came up it looked like an umbilical hernia!

I stopped beekeeping for three reasons:

1. Daughter no. 1 developed an allergy which put her in hospital for a few days. She now carries an epi-pen but has such a dreadful phobia of insects that in order to avoid one she is likely to run into the road and get killed by a passing bus.

2. Lack of time. It gets to be pretty time-consuming in the summer, dealing with swarm control and honey extraction.

3. All my bees were killed by the dreadful parasite varroasis jacobsoni, which sucks the blood of the bee larva sealed in its cell and shortens considerably the life of the adult bee.