Once upon a time, much of Britain was covered by the wildwood. Amongst the rich diversity of trees and shrubs, arboreal species thrived, including the pine marten (martes martes), which arrived in the country after the last ice age. For more than ten thousand years, this beautiful carnivorous mammal roamed throughout the UK, where it inhabited an essential niche in the ecosystem. Then in the 18th and 19th centuries, its population took a nosedive. The reason? Humankind.
Now largely confined to strongholds in the Scottish Highlands, the pine marten is set to make a remarkable comeback to parts of England and Wales, thanks to a pioneering conservation project.
Survival and decline
As a member of the mustelid family, pine martens count stoats, weasels, otters, ferrets and polecats amongst their close relatives. Similar in size to a small domestic cat and just as graceful, pine martens have slim, agile bodies with brown fur, a distinctive cream ‘bib’ on the throat, a long bushy tail and prominent round ears. Unfussy eaters, these nocturnal hunter-gatherers enjoy a varied diet of small mammals, fruit, berries, birds, eggs and invertebrates and will even raid dustbins and bird tables if given the chance.
Pine martens’ preferred habitat is woodland (not necessarily pine woodland) although they can also survive in rocky areas that allow them to use their exceptional climbing skills. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), pine martens can leap up to four metres between tree branches and are adept are landing on their feet, unscathed, from heights of around 20 metres. They’re not bad swimmers either.
Unfortunately, these incredible survival skills proved no match against the massive wave of woodland clearance that occurred in the UK during the late 1800s and 1900s, at the same time as the rise in game shooting and predator persecution.
By the early 20th century, pine martens had become extinct in most of southern Britain and were confined to north-west Scotland and some upland areas of northern England and Wales, including the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Cambrian Mountains. When predator trapping finally slackened off in the 1930s, Scottish pine martens began to recover and slowly recolonised much of their former range. Today, while still rare, they have reached stable populations, thanks in part to the fact that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
But south of the border, it is a different story. Isolated populations in England and Wales dropped so low that they were never able to claw their way back to a viable population. The species is rarely sighted, with conservationists relying on survey methods such as tracking pine marten scat, which smells like violets, or analysing fur samples to detect their presence.
‘We don’t know why pine martens in Scotland fared better than those in England and Wales,’ says Lizzie Croose, Mustelid Conservation Officer for The Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT), which has been researching pine martens for over 30 years. ‘It is likely that their numbers never declined to such an extent as in Wales and England so were able to recover naturally when the pressure of shooting and trapping stopped.’
A new home
Pine martens are extremely elusive mammals and, with one estimate putting their population size at just 4,000, they are Britain’s second rarest carnivore after the Scottish Wildcat. With the species facing an uncertain future in England and Wales, last year VWT took the unprecedented step of translocating pine martens from Scotland into Wales.
The initial stage of the Pine Marten Recovery Project involved carrying out a feasibility test to locate a suitable habitat in which to release translocated pine martens and assess their chances of surviving and thriving in their new home.
‘We highlighted some suitable areas and selected one in mid Wales after carrying out surveys to see if there was enough food for the pine martens, such as small mammals and fruiting shrubs,’ explains Lizzie. ‘Then, we consulted with the local community to address their concerns. Most people were really supportive of the project, although some landowners were concerned about livestock predation. Pine martens will take chickens and pheasants but this can be avoided through good animal husbandry.’
The next step was to obtain a licence from Scottish Natural Heritage to trap and remove a protected species, as well as acquiring permits from the landowners in the release site. VWT also employed its wildlife vets to run a disease risk analysis to eliminate the risk of introducing infections from Scotland to Wales.
In autumn 2015, with everything in place, the project team trapped and translocated 20 martens—10 male and 10 female, gave them a full health check and fitted them with radio collars. The animals were kept in release pens for a few days following their arrival in Wales to allow them to acclimatise to their new surroundings and allow the team to monitor them remotely via camera trap, before they were released into the wild.
‘They have all now settled into the release area and have established den sites,’ says Lizzie. ‘At the moment it is the pine marten breeding season and we believe that one or more of the females may have had young but we will not know for sure until kits emerge from the dens.’
Setting the blueprint
If the translocation proves successful, which all early signs suggest it has been, VWT plan to repeat the process with a further 20 individuals next autumn. Eventually, the Trust intends to replicate the project in other areas of England and Wales, with the Forest of Dean looking a prime candidate for the next location. Lizzie also has high hopes that pine marten populations in northern England may start to recover without human intervention.
‘The work in Wales is a blueprint project and the lessons learnt will be invaluable,’ she explains. ‘But natural recovery is still the best approach. There are records of pine martens in Cumbria and Northumberland and there is evidence that more are spreading across the border from Scotland. In 10 years we would love to see a viable population that has recovered naturally by spreading south.’
Restoring pine marten populations makes good sense. The charismatic mammals can boost local economies through their appeal as an ecotourism attraction. Visitors throng to Speyside Wildlife in the Cairngorms to watch pine martens at dusk from the comfort of a wildlife hide, while holiday cottages near the translocation site in Wales are already starting to promote the mustelids on their websites.
There is also evidence that these skilful predators could help to restore damaged ecosystems by controlling invasive species. Researchers in Ireland have discovered that grey squirrels have dramatically declined in areas that have recently been recolonised by pine martens. The findings have led some ecologists to hope that pine martens could pave the way for a red squirrel revival since red squirrels are more agile and adapted to avoiding native predators than their grey counterparts.
A PhD project is currently underway to see whether the translocated pine martens in Wales will have a similar effect on resident grey squirrels, while another study will investigate changing perceptions and attitudes to pine martens amongst local communities.
To Lizzie, the benefits of bringing back the pine marten go far beyond the impact on local economies or introduced species. ‘They are native mammals and they should be here,’ she insists. ‘We have lost so many of our carnivores including the lynx, the bear and the wolf; it would be a real shame if we lost the pine marten too’