Confessions of a pine marten fanatic

Pine Marten, Credit: Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Our long-term volunteer and seasonal field assistant Lydia Galbraith gives us an insight into her work, and new-found obsession, with pine martens in the Forest of Dean.

When I mention that I’m working with the pine marten reintroduction project, the main reaction I get is an expectant raised eyebrow, a silence that needs filling, a species that needs explaining. “Cool!... what’s a pine marten?”. To be fair to the majority, the pine marten isn’t a household name. The species has been out of sight and out of mind for most of the UK for many years, and the “re-” element of “reintroduction” has confused some that didn’t realise they were here in the first place. Despite often slipping under the radar, their absence has been felt in our woodlands. In addition to their intrinsic value as a native species, the reintroduction of the pine marten is an important step to restoring balance to our woodland ecosystems, and thanks to the efforts of organisations such as Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, the British population is on track to getting their second wind.

In folklore, pine martens are a symbol of determination, skill and luck, all the components needed to see one of these elusive beauties in the wild (well, mainly luck). At the beginning of my journey with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, I set it my mission to catch a glimpse of a pine marten in the wild, and By Jove I did it.

But let’s start at the beginning. Prior to becoming Field Assistant, I had racked up three years of volunteering and two dissertations for the pine marten project, and it’s safe to say I was a bit obsessed. From the get-go I was thrilled by the idea of these creatures roaming around our woodland, and it’s been a privilege to see the inner workings that made this project a reality. In 2017 I joined the volunteer group involved with evaluating the suitability of the Forest of Dean, and assessing the feasibility that a population of pine martens could survive here. We lovingly sought out suitable habitat, picked out potential homes in tree cavities that would hopefully one day house a little pine marten family, and identified all the potential risks. Thankfully, the glorious and complex habitat common in the Forest of Dean checked out to be an ideal location for a new pine marten population. Fast forward three years and I am again standing in the Forest of Dean, but this time armed with radio tracking equipment and a bum bag full of peanut butter.

Lydia radio tracking

Lydia radio tracking

Essentials for a Field Assistant bum bag:

  • The aforementioned peanut butter- (Disclaimer: not for human consumption). Used to create an intriguing smell around our camera trap stations so we can get a good look at our martens and their kits.
  • Batteries for camera traps- To paraphrase The Dubliners, “I am the lord of the batteries, said he”. Batteries everywhere, in every pocket and every crevice.
  • Snacks- Project Officer Josie doesn’t run on batteries and needs topping up with snacks every 2-3 hours. After much trial and error, I discovered a mini Battenberg is most effective.
  • Positive mental attitude- Like all outdoor jobs, sometimes you’ve got to endure some long days in grim weather. Sometimes days spent radiotracking can come up fruitless. Sometimes when digging into the mud with your bare hands you can’t help but think to yourself “what on earth am I doing?” In these times a positive mental attitude goes a long way, and I am so lucky to have been able to spend two months in the (most of the time) glorious sunshine looking for wildlife.

I’d like this to be an epic tale of how I waited and waited to catch a mere glimpse of a pine marten, and in a dramatic climax I finally saw one within the last ten minutes of my final day. Alas, within the first week I had done it. Seeing my first pine marten, and I say this without hyperbole, was one of the most exciting moments of my young life. Initially, I didn’t want to jump the gun. I surely hadn’t just seen one? It looked exactly like one, the perfect pine marten silhouette running along a fallen log ahead of me. But surely not, no one is this lucky. Project Officer Josie knows her pine martens, and I didn’t want to look a fool. I tried to play it cool, maybe it was a really big squirrel? (It wasn’t). Or an oddly shaped badger? (It wasn’t). It wasn’t until we confirmed the sighting using radio tracking equipment that I allowed myself to be certain. Life is that kind.

Josie and Lydia radio tracking

Josie and Lydia radio tracking

It set a good precedent for the next two months. In addition to camera trapping and radio tracking, we deployed footprint tunnels, collected hair samples and spent days looking for and sniffing pine marten scat (if you’re curious- and I’m sure you are- it has a distinct sweet scent due to all the berries they eat, a bit like musty Parma Violets). In areas where the habitat lacked premium pine marten real estate, we put den boxes up in the trees to improve the chance of habitation. In the interest of full disclosure, at the beginning I was not a fan of climbing ladders at all. But it wasn’t long until I had channelled my inner pine marten and was shimmying up those trees without a care in the world- as long as I didn’t look down and reminded myself that what I was doing was for the good of the wildlife.

Before I knew it my time as Field Assistant had come to a close. My days of looking for pine martens and sniffing poo was over for now. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been involved with this project over the last three years, and I have had so many unique experiences that I can take forward in my conservation career. To everyone at Team Pine Marten, thank you for all your hard work. And to the actual pine martens that I have become so fond of, good luck out there!

Lydia, over and out

 

Pine Marten, Credit: Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Pine Marten, Credit: Mark Hamblin/2020VISION