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. It weighs between 0.9-2.2kg and has a lifespan of up to 12 years.
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.
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.
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 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.