Pine marten guide: how to identify, where to see in Britain and other facts

What is a pine marten and where do they live in the UK? What do they eat and are they endangered? Learn all about this elusive species with our comprehensive guide to pine martens

Pine marten martes martes on branch in tree

Our guide to pine martens in the UK, including facts about the species, what they eat, and where to see

What is a pine marten?

The pine marten (Martes martes) has a long, thin body, round ears, chocolate-brown fur and creamy-white throat. It is a member of the Mustelidae family, along with stoats, weasels, badgers, otters, mink and many more. The name comes from the mammal’s choice of habitat, as it lives amongst mainly coniferous woodland such as pine forests.  It weighs between 0.9-2.2kg and has a lifespan of up to 12 years.

Pine marten (Martes martes) ©Getty

What do pine martens eat?

Pine martens feed on fruit, fungi, insects, small rodents – such as voles – and bird eggs. Most of their food is found on the ground, despite being strong climbers.

great tit parus major nest with clutch of eggs mid-wales garden, uk
Bird eggs make up part of the pine marten’s diet ©Getty

Where do pine martens live?

As suggested by its name, the pine marten lives mostly among coniferous woodland such as pine forests, though they also spend time in scrubby and rocky areas.

Populations are restricted largely to northern and central Scotland, along with a few small pockets in southern Scotland, northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Pine Marten, Martes martes. UK
Pine martens live largely in woodland ©Getty

Are pine martens endangered?

Despite being listed as a species of ‘least concern’, the pine marten is scarce in Britain (thought to be just 3,500) and is a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

It’s believed that pine martens arrived in Britain at the end of the last glacial period. They thrive in woodland habitats and, around 6,500 years ago, were the second most common carnivore in Britain and Ireland.

In the 1800s, pine martens were hunted for fur and this, combined with predator control by gamekeepers and habitat fragmentation, led them to the verge of extinction in many areas of the UK. Only small populations survived in isolated areas across northern England, Wales and Ireland. The Scottish Highlands are the only area where their population still remains strong.

A red fox looking through the long grass in the evening sunlight.
The red fox predates on pine martens – but it is human activity that has had the biggest impact ©Getty

The golden eagle and the red fox may prey on the pine marten, killing it either for food or to eliminate it as competition, but humans are the main enemy for this cat-like creature and activities such as habitat fragmentation and trapping are by far the most damaging to an already dwindling population.

What is the future for pine martens?

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the pine marten is protected from a lot of human activity. It’s illegal to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure or take wild pine martens, destroy their shelters or sell them, without a licence. Despite these measures to protect the pine marten, traps set for other animals such as foxes kill a large number of them.

Despite these bleak-sounding times for the pine marten, there is positive news too. The Pine Marten Recovery Project, launched in 2015, was the very first translocation of pine martens from Scotland to Wales. And in July of the same year, one was spotted in Shropshire, an area where the animal was thought to have died out a century ago (experts believe it travelled across the Welsh boarder into Shropshire).

Pine marten on alder branch. Scotland. August.
Pine marten in Scotland ©Getty

Pine martens are very territorial – males can roam an area as large as 25 kilometres squared. Younger, smaller pine martens are often out-competed and need to travel to find new territories. They can easily travel up to 20km a day, and therefore it’s likely that as pine marten numbers increase, they will gradually travel to other parts of the Britain.

It’s been a tough two centuries, but the future for the pine marten looks positive.

Are pine martens good for red squirrels?

Pine martens can be a huge help to other species struggling to survive, as they function as another predator higher up the food chain. Red squirrel numbers are on the up in Northern Ireland and experts believe we have the pine marten to thank for the trend. Grey squirrels have been out-competing their red relatives for decades, but now, with more grey squirrels being eaten by the pine marten, the red population is improving.

Pine martens are beneficial for Britain’s red squirrel population ©Getty

When and where is best place to see pine martens?

Pine martens are notoriously difficult to spot. They are mostly nocturnal but can be seen in the early and late hours of the day, especially in summer when they are most active.

You may not spot one in the flesh, but discovering signs of them can be just as rewarding – look for footprints, scat and and lost fur in the undergrowth.

Pine marten feeding station ©Getty

Best places to see pine martens in the UK

You are very lucky to spot a pine marten as they are renown for being elusive, but here are five sites known for pine marten activity: