Hindsight is 2020

Pine Marten Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

As our translocated martens make there way through their second winter here in the Dean (and their third lockdown!) we thought we’d look back on the past 12 months of the project.

I’m a scat-(wo)man

This time last year was very exciting for the project team; we completed the Dean’s first scat surveys which were undertaken in March as this is the time of year when scat numbers are lowest on the ground. This gives us a conservative estimate of how many scats are in the area. Martens leave many of their scats at their dens, to mark their resting sites, but they also scat strategically along the paths and tracks that go through, and surround, their territory. This is advantageous for us marten wranglers as it means we can search for these calling cards whilst taking a lovely stroll through the spring forest. It was a great way to get volunteers involved in project by giving them their marten surveying initiation, that is, of course, the smelling of scats. If you’re lucky you get a fragrant marten scat, and if you’re not so lucky then it’s the acrid stretch of a fresh fox poo, that stays in your nose for weeks.

Scat surveys are a vital part of our monitoring work

Scat surveys are a vital part of our monitoring work

The ‘kits’ are alright

April was the month we were pretty sure some of our martens had given birth, and whilst the whole country was in strict lockdown it meant the forest was quiet and empty giving the newly anglicised martens a chance to raise their offspring in peace. We had an inkling our martens had kits as they stayed in the same den site night after night, as opposed to moving resting place each night (as is their norm). It’s also the time of year that martens moult out of their winter coat, turning from fluffy, blonde-highlighted teddy bears to sleek conker-brown beauties. This moult starts from the nose and moves backwards which, if caught on camera at the right time, gives the impression of a snake shedding its skin. This in-between moult time added to our assumption that we had new kits, as our poor females were turning up on camera looking haggard with tufts of fur sticking up every which way as their youngsters demanded food, warmth, and attention from them. A look I think many home-schooling parents can relate to!

Den box checks helps us to find out if any females have given birth

Den box checks helps us to find out if any females have given birth

In May and June, we spent our time closely following our kits are they were weened and started to explore the big world outside the safety of their cosy tree cavities. Through borescopes, camera traps, and scat signs we confirmed 4 of our females had had young and watched with our hearts in our mouths as they bumbled their way through learning to climb, hunt, and avoid people. At this time of year, they are still very much dependant on mum, both for the fresh prey she brings back to the natal den and for a helping paw when they misjudge a branch and end up falling out of the den. Poor FD05 seemed to spend most of her time retrieving one or other kit from the forest floor, hurtling down the tree to catch them the second they fell. Whereas FD19 took a more laid-back approach and expected her offspring to attempt to climb back in themselves before she offered assistance.

One of the kits born in Gloucestershire in 2020

One of the kits born in Gloucestershire in 2020

Summer lovin’

In July and August the kits spend more time off adventuring on their own but are still tolerated by mum in her territory, often appearing on camera together. But this slow and steady distancing between mum and offspring allows more chance for females to find a mate. Mating occurs throughout the summer months with males travelling widely in search of oestrous females. Our resident lothario FD11 was seen on camera with two different females during mating season last summer, so we’re hopeful both FD19 and FD05 are pregnant again. This time of year also provides a bounty of food for our martens, allowing them to improve their body condition ready for the colder months of winter. They fill up on berries, fungi, and the abundance of invertebrate life that exists during the warmer summer months.

By September and October our kits had reached adult size but are still able to be distinguished from the adults through their ‘bright, shiny, and new’ appearance. Perfect fur, sharp white teeth and infantile, playful behaviour. They still were captured at the same camera sites as their mothers but very rarely at the same time, instead living their own life. At this time of year activity levels also reduce, with the colder weather causing martens to try and conserve their energy. And to help with this they moult back into their warmer fluffy winter pelage.

One of the kits from 2020 fending for himself and giving us a lovely show of his bib

One of the kits from 2020 fending for himself and giving us a lovely show of his bib

Silver-white winters that melt into spring

With snowdrops and primroses just starting to poke their heads above the snow we’re looking forward to when the weather gets warmer and our martens hopefully raise kits for the second time. This will be another milestone for our project, showing that they have mated here in England.

It is February that martens ‘officially’ become pregnant. Martens mate in the summer and the egg fertilises into a blastocyst but it does not implant into the womb until the following spring. Our translocated martens here in the Dean are now collarless so trying to work out if they’ve bred is much trickier this year. Last year we knew from radio-collars that they had settled down into the same den site each night. This year we’ll have to use more old-fashioned methods to get an idea of who is pregnant. Using camera traps and searching for signs that den boxes are being used, such as scat on the roof and prey remains around the floor around the den.

Camera traps are our bread and butter. There’s no such thing as too many!

Camera traps are our bread and butter. There’s no such thing as too many!

It’s been a busy year with four breeding females, den boxes deployed all over the dean, and monitoring of cameras marking the growth and dispersal of our Dean kits. We’ve also confirmed resident martens across the border into Herefordshire and Shropshire and their slow dispersal down the Wye into Wales (apparently they didn’t read the memo about the travel ban between England and Wales!).

It won’t now be long before our thoughts turn to the next stage of the project and a return of volunteers to our marten wrangling schedule. But until then do your best pine marten impression and curl up in a warm nook to wait for spring.

If you need us, we will be in the forest

If you need us, we will be in the forest

Until next time

Team Pine Marten