Discovery of pine marten populations in the UK

A few years ago, on BBC Spring Watch, the presenters were talking about pine martens, and in the aftermath of the piece they did, it was discovered that there were still two populations of pine martens outside Scotland.

One of these was in Wales, where sightings were made on 40+ occasions.

Also in Powys in Wales, a pine marten was found dead on the road.  While any dead animal is sad, this is unmistakable evidence that the pine marten does still exist in Wales.

This was unexpected but has been very helpful as it is far easier to translocate animals to bolster a surviving population, that it is to restart a population from scratch. In the years since a translocation has begun, over 3 years 51 pine martens were captured in Scotland, then after settling down, were re-released in Wales.

This boosting of the population should allow them to naturally spread the area that they continue to inhabit. In areas where the pine marten reappears, grey squirrels tend to disappear very rapidly. Furthermore apart from the damage they do to the native squirrel species, grey squirrels also do lots of damage to woodland, so without them the woodland is far healthier.

Even more exciting, a tiny remaining population was discovered in the New Forest in southern central England. This is exciting because if there is a small remaining population in the New Forest, and like the population in Wales there are pine martens translocated from Scotland, it allows pine martens to recover from three different points in the country, which should accelerate the recovery of the pine marten, which will naturally reduce the number of grey squirrels. This in turn will allow the red squirrels to recover, and this should allow trees in these areas to be healthier.

Ireland is ahead of us on this front.  This newspaper article talks about this animal and the amazing restorative effect it had allowing it to recover. While Ireland is a smaller country, if the persecution stops the same success story is likely in England and Scotland. There were some councillors vocally against the recovery. The opposition was based on an anecdotal case of a fox (he mistook this for a pine marten) attacking a baby. Quite apart from a councillor being very careless in what he said, he also stated that pine martens were not natural residence but had been introduced (rather than reintroduced) by humans. Their initial article stated “Look at the pine marten, the most nasty vicious bird that you have ever seen. They were never in Ireland but have been introduced” which is not just inaccurate but laughable to describe it so incorrectly.

This article gives a more thorough assessment of the recovery in Scotland, and in particular lists some of the attacks that are occurring and lead to its collapse in the whole of the UK and Ireland. The most serious problem has come from land owners eradicating pine martens. The pine marten is usually exterminated because it attacks game birds, which are introduced for people to shoot rather than for pine martens to eat. However, it has been shown that it is possible to create pine marten proof fences. However without this arboreal apex predator, animals that are foolishly introduced or escape from zoos, are able to get a strong foothold, leading to damage either in the wild animals or vegetation.

A study was carried out at the university of Aberdeen, on the interplay of these three species and confirms what is clear from the anecdotal information that, when pine martens are absent red squirrel populations collapse, but when pine martens are present, grey squirrels go into decline and red squirrels therefore thrive.

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