Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

Murder in High Places


Mice in the bedroom, woodworm in the fridge – we were home again. Steve enjoys sipping his coffee while sitting out on the terrace every morning, and over several days he watched magpies build their nest painstakingly, high up in the tree next to the farm. The magpies were very vocal, arguing about the best way to lay sticks and the most suitable lining material. But they created a large, handsome family home, and Madame Magpie proudly laid her eggs inside.

The nest, high in the tree next to the farm.

The nest, high in the tree next to the farm.

And then, while I was washing up one morning, Steve shouted for me to come outside. A tremendous furore was going on around the magpies’ nest; the parents were screaming and other magpies were swooping across the top of the tree and shrieking. A squadron of crows soared over to provide reinforcements and there was a cacophony of flapping wings, rustling leaves and hysterical birds.

Steve explained that a creature had run up the tree and entered the nest, and it was still there. He thought it looked like a cat. I was doubtful about this, cats are not confident at such high altitudes. Our own Bella wails with terror and begs us to call the fire brigade if she finds herself higher than a metre up the cherry tree.

The creature remained in the nest for what seemed a very long time indeed, while the birds dive-bombed¬†fruitlessly and rampaged through the branches of the tree. I could only imagine what the parents were feeling. Then suddenly the animal leapt from the nest and tore across the treetops, before bounding back to earth and disappearing. It had a pointed nose and a thick tail. “It’s a pine marten,” I said.

Now I only knew this because I have read “C’est La Folie” by Michael Wright. Renovating an old French farmhouse, Michael heard footsteps in the loft above his bed. One night, the owner of the footsteps actually peed through the ceiling onto Michael’s face. Only when he shoved his cat up into the roof space did he persuade a pine marten to vacate the premises. (It’s a really good read…)

Steve was not sure that I was right, and visiting Liz later that day we looked it up on her computer. There was the creature we had seen, with its pointy face and luxurious tail, and a description of how it eats baby birds and eggs. I will not forget the silence that fell around the tree when the pine marten had finally gone. There was an atmosphere of shock and horror, the other birds crept away, and the parents slowly flew down to their nest to face the carnage. Within a few minutes the sky was deserted, and the parents never returned to that nest again.

As always, Liz provided cheering company for us. She played the organ and we had a sing-song of our favourite hymns – perhaps a fitting end to such a tumultuous day.