Return of the Pine Marten

 One of Britain’s Rarest Mammals Returns to Forest of Dean

 

The pine marten, once common in English woodlands, has teetered on the brink of extinction – until now. In September 2019, 18 pine mine martens were successfully released into the Forest of Dean.

The release, a collaboration between Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Forestry England, Vincent Wildlife Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forest Research, is a major milestone in an effort to bring the pine marten back home. The ultimate goal is to successfully establish a source population to support the recovery of pine martens in England.

Nature Picture Library photographer Nick Upton was given privileged access to photograph the release. As a result, he was able to capture the moment when one of the pine martens left its soft release cage, finally setting paws on English soil. The marten originally came from Scotland, where populations are currently expanding.

A Charming but Elusive Mammal

Pine martens are mustelids, close relatives of otters and weasels. They are similar in size to a domestic cats, with slim bodies, brown fur and a distinctive cream ‘bib’ on their throats. They have long, bushy tails and prominent rounded ears.

Hunting of pine martens, together with the loss of woodlands, led to their near extinction in England. As a result, they were pushed to the more remote parts of the UK, becoming Britain’s second-rarest native carnivore. Their only remaining stronghold was in the Highlands of Scotland, but now things are looking up for the pine marten.

“We are delighted be involved with the return of the pine marten, a charming, but highly elusive mammal that was once widespread throughout England” said Rebecca Wilson, Forestry England’s Planning and Environment Manager in West England.

“As native omnivores, pine martens play a vital role in the delicate balance of woodland ecosystems. Living at low densities in the landscape, they forage on fruit, fungi and a range of prey including the grey squirrel, a non-native species which is having a detrimental impact on broadleaf woodland throughout England.”

“We are looking forward to working with volunteers, local communities and partner organisations to monitor how the pine martens are moving throughout the Forest of Dean and the wider landscape”

Former Reintroductions

For the past 20 years, Vincent Wildlife Trust has highlighted the decline of pine martens in England and Wales. In a bid to safeguard the future of this charismatic creature, they began introducing pine martens from Scotland to Wales. Between 2015 to 2017, 51 pine martens were released into Wales, where they have now established a population.

Nick Upton was again granted access to photograph the Welsh reintroductions. He had to work quickly to minimise stress to the martens during the sensitive release phase. This also meant avoiding the use of a traditional white flash at crucial stages of the process. Consequently, Upton used infra-red flashes, which render the images in black and white, but cause far less disturbance to the martens. He also designed sealed camera traps with no exposed wires so that the martens couldn’t chew them. This allowed Upton to photograph them in their soft release cage, as they gorged on peanuts and raisins before venturing out into their new home.

The story of the Welsh reintroductions is covered in more detail in our photo feature In the Company of Pine Martens.

Monitoring progress

Members of the public are unlikely to spot the pine martens in the Forest of Dean because they are solitary animals. For that reason, they go out of the way to avoid each other, and people. However, they have all been fitted with radio collars, so they can be closely monitored. Dr. Catherine McNicol, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Project Manager, is responsible for radio-tracking them.

“Pine martens are elusive and shy animals, so their presence is often only indicated by scats in the middle of forestry tracks,” she says. “They only give birth to a few kits each year if breeding is even successful, so the rate of marten population recovery in the UK is low. It is hoped that their protection, alongside these reintroductions, will give them the boost they need to become resilient and thrive.”

A Future in the Forest

Pine martens have a bright future in England. The hope is that over the next two years, more will be released into the Forest, establishing a population there. If this population spreads, it could link up with the recently reintroduced Welsh pine martens. Most importantly, that would create a new stronghold for the species. Combined with support of local community, pine martens can finally come back to their native home for good.

 

Female pine marten feeding from a bird table at night, Scotland, UK. © Nick Upton / naturepl.com

Pine marten leaping between trees at night, Scotland, UK. © Nick Upton / naturepl.com