This article by Peter Creech, appeared in the most recent edition of ‘The Kist’, which is a joint publication between Kilmartin Museum and the Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Mid Argyll (NHASMA), and is reproduced by the kind permission of the author. [Bernie Bell]
Argyll: Rich in Pine Martens
By Pete Creech
Iconic is a much overused word and is applied to a number of the species to be found in Argyll; pine martens included. But, in many ways their return is one of our more understated conservation success stories; there are now 4,000 or so in Scotland and Scottish pine martens are helping to reinforce relic populations in Wales and the English Lake District, as well as being reintroduced to the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.
Pine martens (Martesmartes) have a Palearctic distribution: from western Siberia across Russia and Europe to Scotland and Ireland, and from the northern limit of the boreal forest to the Mediterranean and the Caucasus in the south. It is also found on many of the Mediterranean islands and is one of eight marten species found worldwide.
By the early years of the twentieth century pine martens had disappeared from all but the remotest areas of north-west Scotland, due to ruthless persecution for predation on game birds and poultry, conversion of land to agriculture, hunting for its fur,and deforestation.
Since then they have made a slow recovery, partly as a result of reforestation and protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), but have remained perilously close to extinction in England and Wales. A far cry from their previous status of Britain’s second commonest predator. Some inclination of the diversity of our native species in Scotland can be found in the number of ‘kills’ recorded in the game books of the large sporting estates of the 19th Century. For example, between 1832 and 1834, 901 martens, polecats and wildcats were killed on the Duke of Sutherland’s estate (Mackie 1911). Pine marten populations are extremely vulnerable to ’violent mortality’, i.e. traffic accidents, poisoning and persecution. A 10% increase in adult and juvenile mortality can result in a 90% reduction in population growth (English Nature 1994)
In the UK our larger carnivores have been absent for centuries; bears in the early medieval, 1,500 years ago, lynx in the medieval period 1,300 years ago, wolves possibly hung on until the 18th century. The smaller members have been extirpated largely as a result of the intensive raising of game birds and the widespread perception of carnivores in general as vermin. This attitude (and persecution) persists in some sections of the community, and has been a principal impediment to the species’ reintroduction in England. Conversely, in Europe, they have little impact on human activities, and, because they have always been part of the native fauna, their presence is largely ignored or accepted. As a result, they are relatively numerous.
Species that today we view with great fondness, such as red squirrels and hedgehogs were, in the red squirrel’s case, hunted to near extinction in the 18th Century and were subsequently reintroduced. The majority of our current population can be traced to Scandinavian and other European populations. Subsequent threats have resulted from habitat loss and both competition and disease transmission from grey squirrels. Pine martens may have a role to play in aiding the restoration of red squirrel populations, one that is both cost-effective and beneficial to the martens’ PR ratings with the general public. Researchers at Queens University, Belfast, and National Museums Northern Ireland found that the presence of pine martens increases the chances of red squirrels inhabiting an area and also reduces the likelihood of visits from grey squirrels. Similarly, research carried out by the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences confirmed that pine marten populations are suppressing grey squirrel numbers. Conversely, the presence of martens, a predator of red squirrels, was shown to boost their numbers. Their presence made the red squirrels more cautious, behaviour that is to be expected from a species that has co-evolved with pine martens. On the other hand, grey squirrels showed no such caution, making them an easier prey item for the martens. This contradicts the ‘landscape of fear theory’ that would suggest the grey squirrels would actively avoid areas with pine martens (Sheehy & Xavier 2018).
As a result, pine martens, along with other species, from ospreys and white-tailed sea eagles to otters and wildcats clung on in remote areas of Scotland, often long after they had become extinct in the rest of the UK. In some cases, this has given rise to the belief that these ‘wild’ places are the preferred, or only, suitable habitat for these species, rather than being the ‘edge lands’ where they have managed to avoid total elimination. Ravens are a good example; a bird of cliff faces, mountains and remote places today, commoner than red kites in our towns and cities until 150 years ago (Shute 2018). Their slow spread across their former range is celebrated by many and viewed with grave concern by others. Intelligent opportunists (a trait they share with martens) their former world is much changed, and they have adapted accordingly; a recipe for conflict. Martens may be luckier in some respects; commercial forestry has aided their return, as has woodland restoration. However, these adaptable mustelids will make do with a variety of habitats.
Pine martens are omnivorous generalists feeding on small rodents, birds, beetles, carrion, eggs and fungi. In autumn, berries are a staple. In Argyll they have a particular fondness for rowan berries and have been known to defend a favourite tree from other competitors (Lister Kaye 2011). Their fondness is evident in their scat, that for a number of weeks seems to consist of little else. Fruit and nuts can make up over 10% of their diet. In common with other mustelids pine martens will cache food when plentiful. At Barrandaimh they will visit the peanut feeders on a nightly basis and eat their fill.
If we place eggs in the feeders however, their behaviour is decidedly different. Our trail cameras have shown a marten take six eggs in less than half an hour. Each egg is carefully removed and hidden before it returns for the remainder; quite a feat when you look at the size of their skull and jaws. I tried one for size, quite a squeeze, and I didn’t attempt to climb headfirst down a tree with one in my mouth! Of all our mustelids the pine marten is the best equipped for an arboreal existence, having semi-retractable claws. Their territories vary according to their sex and prey availability; a male’s can be up to 25 square kilometres. Where pine martens are widely distributed and few in number it can be very difficult to establish the number of territories, as it appears they abandon the practice of territorial marking, probably because it is unnecessary and represents a waste of energy. Young (up to five) are born in early spring and emerge from their den in June.
The pine marten’s habit of making dens in the remains of Scots pines probably accounts for their name. They were formerly known as ‘sweet mart’ due to their lack of odour, or possibly because their scat smells of violets (allegedly). The term was also used to distinguish them from ‘foul mart’ (polecats) for obvious reasons. The Gaels named them taghan, whilst they were known as mertrick in the Scots language (Pullar 2018).
Pine martens continue to make their quiet return to parts of their former range; partly by their own efforts and partly with the assistance of organisations such as the Vincent Trust. Meanwhile they are one of the species that visitors coming to the wildlife centre most want to see. Day light appearances are fairly infrequent, but memorable. The sight of one (fairly elderly) enthusiast lying full length on the floor to get the best camera angle for the marten feeding outside our window remains an enduring memory of last year.
English Nature research report No. 84 (1994): Reintroduction of the pine marten: A feasibility study
Available from: publications.naturalengland.org.uk
Lister-Kaye J (2011). At the water’s edge: A walk in the wild. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Mackie J (1911). The keeper’s book: a guide to the duties of a gamekeeper. T.N. Foulis
Pullar P (2018. A richness of martens, wildlife tales from Ardnamurchan. Edinburgh:Birlinn Books.
Sheehy, Sutherland, O’Reilly and Xavier (2018). The enemy of my enemy is my friend: native pine marten recovery reverses the decline of the red squirrel by suppressing grey squirrel populations.
Shute J (2018) A shadow above. The fall and rise of the raven. London:Bloomsbury Publishing.
The Mammal Society. SpeciesPine MartenMartesmartes
Available from: http://www.mammal.org.uk/species-hub/full-species-hub/discover-mammals/species-pine-marten/
Vincent Wildlife Trust pine marten recovery project
Available from: http://www.vwt.org.uk