2 turtle doves… and a marten, in a beech tree

Pine Marten Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

’tis the season to be jolly….but are the pine martens decking the halls or do they know its Christmas time at all?

In the bleak mid-winter

In the year of the marten, winter tends to start around October and last until at least February. Although here in Gloucestershire winter seems very mild and short for us Northerners (pine martens included). Either way, winter marks the end of breeding time for pine martens. They moult their summer coats, often looking a bit grey and scraggly in October before they are ready with their new winter coat, and possibly a matching hat and glove set if they’re lucky.

Baby its cold outside…

Despite one of the key defining features of the marten, is its beautiful chocolate brown coat and creamy yellow bib, the pine marten is not actually that well adapted to cold climates. Their long body shape, slender due to limited fat reserves, and a high metabolic rate means that they lose heat pretty easily. Yet, European pine martens, alongside many of their mustelid cousins were once heavily exploited for their pelts. The fur trade was rife in Russia, across Europe and in North America, and fur-trapping became a defining activity in the history of the pine marten. Johnny Birks’ fantastic book on pine martens tells us that in 1829 in Gloucestershire you could earn 2 shillings and sixpence (12.5p nowadays) for a pine marten skin1! So, this exploitation of mustelids was not just in snowy outstations in Canada or forests of Russia…but right here in this county. However, it seems that these pelts offered more style than substance and were in fact, not that warm!

Pine marten kits in den site

Pine marten kits in den site

I’ll be home for Christmas…

Because of their poor heat retention, the martens have to change their behavior to cope with cold weather challenges and lack of food. To do this they reduce their activity, conserve energy and stay curled up by the proverbial fire2, maybe only venturing out for a couple of hours per day to forage and hunt. In the coldest locations of their range, martens may even favour a ground-level den site or one under snow (as demonstrated by the American marten most often!).

American marten in snow

American marten in snow

Now bring us some figgy pudding…

During winter martens favourite side dishes, such as berries and invertebrates, are in short supply and so they tend to focus on the old faithful: voles and other small mammals such as mice and shrews to see them through tough times 3,4. Martens can also do the classic pre-Christmas bulk shop and freeze, caching some larger prey items such as birds for days where hunting seems like too much effort.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

In the classic New Year’s Eve song, Auld Lang Syne, Robert Burns asks if old times and friends should be forgotten. The history of the pine marten, their trials and tribulations, have shaped the distribution and the state of the marten population in the UK. We hope martens are ‘out of the woods’ in the most metaphorical sense now, but we should not forget their turbulent past and what it has taken to kick-start their recovery in this country. The history of the marten should not ‘be forgot’…but we look at their future with great optimism.

Pine Marten Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Pine Marten Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Have a wonderful festive season

Team Pine Marten

References

  1. Birks, J. 2017. Pine Martens. Whittet Books Ltd, Essex.
  2. Zalewski, A. et al.,1995. Pine marten home ranges, numbers and predation on vertebrates in a deciduous forest (Białowieża National Park, Poland). In Annales Zoologici Fennici, pp. 131-144.
  3. Caryl, F.M., 2008. PhD Thesis: Pine marten diet and habitat use within a managed coniferous forest.
  4. Zalewski, A., 2005. Geographical and seasonal variation in food habits and prey size of European pine martens. In Martens and fishers (Martes) in human-altered environments, pp. 77-98.