PLYMOUTH BRANCH INDOOR MEETING 22 JANUARY 2024: PINE MARTEN RECOVERY PROJECT IN DEVON BY EMILY CUFF

An elusive mustelid, the Pine Marten is mostly found in the north of the UK, particularly Scotland. It prefers woodland habitats, climbing very well and living in tree holes – old squirrel dreys or old bird nests. It feeds on small rodents, birds, eggs, insects and fruit, and can even be encouraged to visit bird tables laden with peanuts and raisins. During the summer mating season, they make shrill, cat-like calls. The following spring, the female will have a litter of between one to five kits, which are independent by autumn.

The decline in numbers is attributed to loss of habitat, persecution and historical extermination on sporting estates.  In the South West peninsula Pine Marten are functionally extinct. A recovery project which aims to reintroduce this species to two areas on Exmoor and Dartmoor respectively is now being considered.

Emily Cuff, a nature recovery officer for Devon Wildlife Trust, outlined the back story and motivation for reintroduction of Pine Marten, stating that primarily this native species contributes much to the ecosystem of the habitats it thrives in. As a mesopredator it occupies a mid-ranking level in food chains and as an omnivore it competes with the likes of Grey Squirrel and there is evidence that it may help to control the Grey Squirrel population. However, it does not affect Red Squirrel, another native species that has evolved alongside the Pine Marten, and can coexist effectively – this could help with Red Squirrel recovery.

Recovery projects in Wales have resulted in an increase in the population in this region, which is the closest to SW England.  Natural recovery can’t be relied upon as it would take too long for this slow breeding mammal to expand its range into our region.  The project would therefore involve the translocation from Scottish populations, of 15 to 20 animals of two years and older.

The all-important habitat for Pine Marten is also in need of help, with the South West having a low density of suitable woodlands.  More promisingly the extensive and established networks of native hedgerow in our geographical location does bode well for the Pine Marten who use them as corridors, for security as well as food sources. Interestingly the development of native woodlands also benefits woodland bird populations, a statistically proven fact from data collected in Scotland where reforestation that benefits Pine Marten has also seen woodland bird populations significantly increase alongside the Pine Marten numbers.

The project is gathering the opinions and tapping in to the knowledge of many varied stakeholders.  Work that is being undertaken includes a disease risk analysis, habitat regulation assessment, with detailed consideration of the effects of reintroduction on all existing species in the relocation areas. Drawing on data and evidence from qualified agencies has also shown that Pine Marten offer little or no threat to ground nesting birds such as Curlew (as nesting habitat is not impacted by the areas of the relocation project) and similarly with Nightjar. There has been little impact on woodland nesting raptors in areas where Pine Marten live, indeed raptors have predated on Pine Marten in some woodland locations.

Mitigation methods such as nest box design and adaptations to discourage predation were described.  As work on the project progresses there will be continued monitoring and management and an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders and wildlife agencies.  Maybe in the future we may glimpse this mammal as it scurries through a tree or along the woodland floor when we’re out birding. Only time will tell.

Report by John Lloyd (Plymouth Branch Committee Member)