| A pair of lithe animals are tumbling across the grass within feet of me|
|My terrier Phoebe bouncing ahead, I trail down into the valley and rest against a false acacia on the bank of the winterbourne – still flowing after the wet winter and spring. In front of me a faint trail leads into thick oakwoods that stretch from Perpignan to Biarritz along the northern apron of the Pyrenees. The path is used by a sounder – a matriarchal group of sangliers, the wild boar of the region, which live deep among the trees, sleep daylong, and emerge to forage towards dusk.|
Signs of them are all around. I've frequently seen them along the forest margin on my evening walks; watched their endearing, chest-heavy, lolloping run; been delighted by the playfulness of their coffee-and-cream striped young. Just by where I sit, I notice they've dug up and nipped clean off from the stem tubers of white bryony that grows here – a plant deadly poisonous to cattle, yet the wild pigs seem immune to its toxicity.
My eye is caught by movement. A pair of lithe, dark animals are chasing and tumbling across the grass within feet of me in what appears to be mating play. I hook my fingers into Phoebe's collar and watch. They're stone martens – fouines in French – slightly smaller than our British pine martens, and just as beautiful and fierce. Their undulating motion is hypnotic. They seem amiable with each other. I've never seen one before, let alone a pair.
The oddity about these two is that the pale fork-markings on the breast, which descriptions lead you to expect are no more than vestigial. These last six years spent mostly in Europe's last great wilderness have taught me that variation here is standard: melanistic fouines to match the melanistic red squirrels that gnaw delicately at their hazelnuts on my bedroom window-ledge each morning. Presumably in both squirrel and stone marten it's an adaptive melanism, to provide camouflage in the dense, shadowy woods of Ariege? Darwin would have been intrigued and vindicated.