Here in the beautiful Scottish Highlands we are blessed to have in our midst some of the most beautiful and endangered species in the UK. Indeed, the Cairngorms National Park is home to no less than 25% of the UK’s endangered species and is a fantastic place to visit for those who love nature. One species that is often mentioned by visitors is the Pine Marten, a charismatic but elusive character, living high in the tree tops and preferring the soft light of dawn and dusk to go about its business. Visitors often ask about this enigmatic little animal and here we try to answer their most common questions.

What is a Pine Marten?

Pine Martens are members of the mustelid family of animals, along with Stoats, Otters, Badgers and Weasels amongst others. They are arboreal mammals, well suited to live and move easily among the tops of trees, their semi-retractable claws allowing them to climb, grip and run as required. They are shy, preferring to remain in woodland where they have good cover and can be difficult to spot, high up in the trees or even hunting or feeding on the ground.

What does a Pine Marten look like?

With brown fur and a creamy chest, usually with an individually unique collection of brown marking, it is an attractive little animal, dainty in its movements. A weasel-like faces supports rather large, round ears, like mini satellite dishes, swivelling to pick up the slightest sound and a long bushy tail helps provide balance as it leaps from branch to branch. Generally, Pine Martens will weigh between 1 and 2 kg and be around 60cm – 70cm long, a similar size to a domestic cat. Males tend to be slightly larger than females.

Pine Marten (Jamie Sippett)

Where can Pine Marten be found in the UK?

Traditionally Pine Martens were to be found mainly in the north west of Scotland, however with better protection, they have gradually spread from the north- west into the far north, the central highlands, Grampian and Moray. There are also pockets of Pine Marten to be found in Dumfries and Galloway, as well as in the Scottish Borders. Sightings in England are extremely rare, however a programme of re-establishing Pine Marten to Wales has been undertaken by the Vincent Wildlife Trust and early signs are that it is proving successful, with 5 females successfully giving birth in Spring 2017.

Where do they sleep?

Pine Martens build dens – they can have up to six – which they use for sleeping and rearing their young. These are often in the hollows of trees, high up in the branches. Sometimes old squirrel dreys or even Badger setts are used – though they will have been long unoccupied! Sometimes, they will favour a pile of rocks in scrubland, but wherever they choose, the den will always be off the ground and never above the tree-line. In other words, you won’t find Pine Marten at the top of tree-less mountains!

Where can I see a Pine Marten?

Excellent question! Normally they are extremely elusive characters and very difficult to spot, however they do regularly visit our Evening Mammal Watching Hide on Rothiemurchus, where guests often enjoy a very close encounter of the mustelid kind!

Speyside Wildlife Evening Mammal Hide (Kate Mennie)
Mammal watching from our Evening Mammal Hide (Roy Atkins)

What does a Pine Marten eat?

The diet of a Pine Marten is rich and varied. Field Voles are thought to constitute up to 80% of its diet, along with frogs and toads, small passerines, eggs, berries and nuts. Crepuscular, it is most active at dawn and in the twilight hours.

Do Pine Marten hibernate?

No – Pine Martens are active all year round. Their tracks can often be seen in the snow, where they like to urinate on any other tracks, including those made by skis!

Pine Marten prints (Kaye Mennie)

Do Pine Marten eat squirrels?

It is thought by some that the rise in Red Squirrel population in some parts of the country is due to the consumption of Grey Squirrels by Pine Marten. Grey Squirrels feed on the ground, making them easier prey, however Red Squirrels tend to feed among the tree branches and are much nimbler, making them much harder to catch.

Do Pine Marten turn white in Winter?

No. Unlike the Stoat which changes its coat to white in the winter (apart from the tiny black tip of it’s tail) the Pine Marten retains its colour. Its coat will become thicker, silkier and possibly a little darker, but otherwise stays the same. Its feet are kept cosy by being unusually furry!

Pine Marten, winter coats (R Willison)

Do Pine Marten smell?

They do scent feeding places and trails but this is not as noticeable as it is for Fox or Badger. Their scat does have a distinct smell – often likened to sweet drying hay or the sweet Parma Violets, hence another name for Pine Marten being Sweet Marten.

Do Pine Marten live in groups?

They are not especially territorial – males and females will usually occupy neighbouring territories. Young will live with their mother until they are around six months. Territories will require to have between 86 and 166 hectares of woodland per Pine Marten, with Pine Martens being able to travel 20km a day quite easily.

What does Pine Marten poo look like?

Pine Marten scat (poo) is usually black and twirly, often coming to a point at the end. In autumn it may look very purple, due to the rich berry content of its diet. Scat is frequently left in the centre of a track or even road – just to remind us they are around!

Pine Marten scat (indie-birder.blogspot)

Do Pine Martens make a noise?

They are very quiet animals, but can sometimes be heard communicating, especially with their young. The sound made is a soft “tok tok tok”. When mating a shrill cat-like call may be heard.

When do Pine Marten breed and have babies?

Pine Marten usually breed in the summer months – July and August – and like other mustelids have delayed implantation. Their kits are usually born in March/April and there can be up to five babies in a litter, although three or four is most common. The kits are born blind and deaf and remain in the nest until around eight weeks. By 12 weeks they are fully weaned but will stay with their mother until autumn, when they must seek out their own territory. This will often involve travelling great distances to find an unoccupied area of suitable woodland.

Pine Marten and kits (Mike Hems)
Pine Marten and kits (Mike Hems)
Pine Marten and kit (Jamie Sippett)

Are Pine Marten protected in Scotland?

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the Environmental Protection Act (1990) Pine Martens and their dens are legally protected. The current population of Pine Marten in Scotland is believed to be around 3,700.

Speyside Wildlife’s Evening Mammal Hide is available to book all year round online.

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