My heart is in the highlands - the life and times of the pine marten

Cat our Pine Marten Project Officer is back with her next exciting pine marten blog, this time she's taking you back in time looking at the history of the pine marten.

Now that we are all familiar with mustelids lets delve into the main course, the European pine marten Martes martes. European pine marten?!? Yes, that’s right, the pine marten is not only native to the British Isles, but to continental Europe…I imagine they love a croissant or a Smörgåsbord as much as the next person.

So why are they being re-introduced to England? Where did they go? Well, let’s start with the big picture…

Pine marten global distribution

We can currently find pine martens almost anywhere within the boundaries of northern Finland, western Russia, southern Italy and western Ireland. They come up top-trumps in their versatility, with this distribution covering Mediterranean climates in the south, to subarctic climates in the north1. They share much of this continental distribution with the beech/stone marten Martes foina, who are very similar in appearance aside from their smaller ears, white bib…and more troublesome urban preferences. I am not referring to the beech marten’s Banksy-style street art or their love of a yoga class followed by brunch with the girls, but their preference of human dwellings - roof cavities and car wires. Pine martens prefer the smells of a grassy glade or a leafy nook, away from the hustle and bustle of urban life2.

Initially, much of what we knew of pine martens, their habitat and diet, was based on remnant populations in undisturbed habitats…such as mature conifer forests. However, in more recent years, studies of pine martens in the Med and Scotland have revealed the pine martens are not pine forest or even forest specific. Versatility wins again. As well as broadleaf and conifer woodland, they’re partial to shrubland and long rank grassland3,4, ideal for a cheeky field vole hunt I suppose.

PM BM

Pine martens in the British Isles

If we look to the British Isles, we once found pine martens…and woodland… across much of the countryside. However, the rise of agriculture was likely the beginning of the end for marten populations as they once were. With the deforestation that accompanied increased farming, the main habitat of pine martens became fragmented. If this was not enough, the cold-adapted coat of the marten became a desirable accessory, not only as practical winter-wear in the 1600’s, but as high fashion in the Victorian period in the 1800’s. To top it off, throughout these centuries, the pine marten, along with most furry creatures, was classed as vermin. The rise of gamekeeping in the 1600’s and the focused control of predators, in a bid to raise as many game birds for shooting as possible, was probably the nail in the coffin for martens and saw a rapid decline of the remaining population in the 1800s5. By the early-1900’s pine martens were only found in remote parts of the UK and Ireland, probably licking their wounds and rubbing sticks together to make a fire. It was not a good time to be a mustelid.

Pine marten recovery

But despair not. With the progression of the 1900’s came the First and Second World War. Mustelid control became low priority. In its wake came the establishment of nature reserves, national parks, environmentalism, wildlife trusts and conservation organisations. Pine martens were getting some breathing space, they could once again bask in the sunlight streaming into that grassy glade and skip through leafy woodlands. The population was slowly rebuilding. In 1981 the Wildlife and Countryside Act was created in a bid to protect native species and important habitats in the UK. This legislation remains the foundation stone of much work we still do to this day…and you guessed it, the pine marten is on this list.

Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

Let’s take a moment to pause in the 1980’s. Spandex, mullets and Madonna are in. Bell bottoms, beards and Blondie are out. By this point, the pine marten population was starting to gain some substance once again, although now very much restricted to northern Scotland and Ireland. Low reproductive rate, low densities and, up until this point, continued control, did not help speed up this recovery. However, in the last 40 years, pine martens have slowly and quietly spread through Scotland and Ireland like golden syrup spreading from an overturned can across a cold kitchen worktop.

So why the re-introductions? Why the translocations?

The low densities, low reproductive rate, aversion to expanses of exposed areas and human disturbance make pine martens sensitive souls. The central belt of Scotland, where Glasgow and Edinburgh just about divide the Highlands and the Lowlands, seems almost impenetrable to a shy, wee mustelid. Pine martens are, however, slowly filtering through and we now have a sparse number in the Scottish Borders moving into Northumberland6. But the urban jungle does not end here. Actually, this is just the beginning. The further south we go, the more cities and people the martens have to contend with. Creating new population cores and strongholds, such as in Wales , then providing supporting sources, such as in Gloucestershire can help the pine marten population re-establish in inhabitable parts of its original range.

There are many regions which are no longer suitable for martens, where Wagamama has become the new woodland and Cineworld is the new countryside. But the outlook for the pine marten is positive. The Irish and Scottish populations are healthy, the Welsh population is expanding, and in England…well…in the words of Marvin Gaye …‘You’ve been a long time coming but darling, welcome home’.

Until next time!

Cat

Team Pine Marten

 

References

  1. Proulx, G. et al., 2005. World distribution and status of the genus Martes in 2000. In Martens and fishers (Martes) in human-altered environments (pp. 21-76). Springer, Boston, MA.
  2. Wereszczuk A., Zalewski A. 2015. Spatial niche segregation of sympatric stone marten and pine marten – avoidance of competition or selection of optimal habitat? PLoS ONE 10(10).
  3. Lombardini, M., Cinerari, C.E., Murru, M., Rosin, A.V., Mazzoleni, L. and Meriggi, A., 2015. Habitat requirements of Eurasian pine marten Martes martes in a Mediterranean environment. Mammal Research60(2), pp.97-105.
  4. Manzo, E., Bartolommei, P., Giuliani, A., Gentile, G., Dessì-Fulgheri, F. and Cozzolino, R., 2018. Habitat selection of European pine marten in Central Italy: from a tree dependent to a generalist species. Mammal Research63(3), pp.357-367.
  5. Jordan, N.R., Messenger, J., Turner, P., Croose, E., Birks, J. and O’Reilly, C., 2012. Molecular comparison of historical and contemporary pine marten (Martes martes) populations in the British Isles: evidence of differing origins and fates, and implications for conservation management. Conservation Genetics13(5), pp.1195-1212.
  6. SNH 2013. Expansion zone survey of pine marten (Martes martes) distribution in Scotland.