Forest Holidays Ranger Blog

In this Marten March themed blog we're getting to know Gerry O'Brien from Forest Holidays, one of our Project Pine Marten partners, and his love for pine martens with his incredible fundraising mission of running a series of endurance events replicating the distance of the marten translocation from Scotland to Gloucestershire.

Like the majority of wildlife enthusiasts, I was incredibly excited when I first heard of the proposed pine marten reintroduction to the Forest of Dean and Lower Wye Valley. As a Forest Ranger living and working within the region, I understood many of the benefits that this rare native mustelid would bring back to the woodlands. Consequently, I immediately began to look for opportunities to become involved and to deepen my level of understanding.

In time, I became a core volunteer within the pine marten feasibility group and under the direction of Dr Andrew Stringer, helped to collate a range of detailed information. This included involvement with squirrel damage assessments to trees, habitat suitability surveys, fox density studies, road mortality risks and public consultations to gauge opinion on the proposed reintroduction. It was an exciting phase, and I learned a lot from these experiences.

Simultaneously, I utilised my position as a Forest Holidays Ranger to raise awareness of the ecological role of pine martens through regular guided walks and presentations. I was keen to fund raise in support of the project and motivated by discussions with Andrew, I signed up to run a series of endurance events that would replicate the distance of the marten translocation from Scotland. This provided an opportunity for individuals who attended walks and talks to donate directly towards the project should they choose.

I dived in at the deep end and completed the Brecon to Cardiff Ultra marathon as my first event. Taking a steady pace throughout, I completed the 43.5 miles in just over 8 hours and felt surprisingly fresh afterwards. It felt good to get the first event done and just a couple of weeks later I was lining up for my second, the Forest of Dean Spring Trails Half Marathon. Converting from ultra-pace to a faster sharper pace was quite challenging but I gritted through and completed another 13 miles towards my overall goal.

Brecon to Cardiff

Brecon to Cardiff ultra marathon

The events were coming quickly and before I knew it, I was running along the beautiful South Wales Coastline in the Vale of Glamorgan Coastal Ultra (32 miles). My legs were feeling quite heavy from the mileage cumulation so to get me through I focussed on the pine marten project and with each passing mile it felt like their reintroduction had become a step closer. Finishing at Ogmore-by-Sea I couldn't comprehend having to run another 70 miles on top of what I had just completed. However, that was exactly what I would have to do as my major event was the 102-mile Dragon Coastal Trail Race just three weeks later. I was daunted to say the least!

Lining up at Rhossili Bay for the start of that event, I felt a nervous excitement. This was new territory and would push my physical and mental resolve to the limit. Regardless I held a steely and quiet resolve that my hours of preparation and renowned stubbornness would see me through! The early miles along the south Gower coastline were incredibly scenic and passed pleasantly before darkness fell as I rounded the Mumbles headland on the western edge of Swansea Bay. The most challenging part of any extreme ultra event is the night phase and as I ventured inland through Afan Forest, I had to keep incredibly alert to ensure that I stayed on course and didn't add any unnecessary extra mileage! Running and chatting with a friend helped the night phase to pass by smoothly and as daylight broke, we listened to perhaps the best dawn chorus I have ever heard.

The avian melody put a spring in my step along with the knowledge that we now had the full hours of daylight ahead of us. Soon after and back along the coastline, we heard the distinctive sound of Stonechats which spurred us on to our next aid post at Portcawl. The miles were beginning to take a toll now and our pace slowed considerably throughout the day. Once we reached Ogmore-by-Sea I felt that I was on the home straight as I was now running in reverse what I had completed just three weeks prior on the Vale Ultra. Still, there was 30-plus miles to go on very tired legs and as I progressed slowly onwards, my left calf began to tighten considerably. I continued a run-walk combination for as long as I could comfortably do so until eventually that was no longer possible. At this stage, many participants were dropping out but I was determined to complete the event so I found a large stick to use as a makeshift crutch and hobbled on as best I could. Surprisingly upon reaching the last major checkpoint at Barry I felt quite upbeat.

After a brief food respite, I determinedly hobbled on, gradually inching closer to the finish. Eventually as darkness fell once more, the lights of Penarth Pier appeared on the horizon and offered a welcome beacon to focus on. Almost there, I stubbornly hobbled on and eventually reached the finish point on the barrage at Cardiff Bay 29 hours and eleven minutes after I had started the previous evening.

Dragon Coastal Trail Race

Dragon Coastal Trail Race

The next few days weren't pretty as I struggled to get mobility back and it was only as I gradually began to loosen up that the feeling of accomplishment started to fully sink in. I still had more mileage to complete but first I had the summer months to recover and to continue fund raising.

Meanwhile, the green light had been given for the reintroduction to go ahead and now that pine marten return was imminent, preparations began to intensify. Under Dr Cat McNicol’s stewardship, members of the volunteer group helped to furnish soft release pens in preparation for the arrival of the first wave of pine martens. This was incredibly insightful as Cat outlined to us marten likes and dislikes and how they would instinctively act. We learned to think like a pine marten each time we carried out a pen furnishing and ensured that we laid out enough ground cover and climbing branches for the individual to feel at ease. I felt incredibly privileged to be involved in proactive conservation work such as this and to have a hands-on role within an exciting reintroduction project.

As the process of relocating the first pine martens from Scotland eventually began to happen, all of the volunteer team felt that the long hours put in on the feasibility study and in pen preparation had been entirely worth it. This rare native mammal would soon once again be part of the local woodland ecology.

Gerry radio tracking

Gerry radio tracking

Meanwhile I had three more events to complete to achieve my target mileage. In order, I completed the Severn Bridge, Worcester City and Forest of Dean Autumn half marathons and completed my mileage target of 229 miles just as the official press launch of the pine marten return broke. My legs felt heavy but I was bright, upbeat and positive. It felt great to know that the pine marten was now once again back where it rightfully belongs in the woodlands of the Forest of Dean and Lower Wye Valley.

Severn Bridge parkrun

Severn Bridge parkrun