One of our most elusive mammals in Britain, the Pine Marten captures human imagination. It is a member of the weasel family Mustelidae, alongside the Eurasian Badger, Weasel, Stoat and Polecat.
In this post I attempt to capture what makes the Pine Marten so special and why they draw visitors from far and wide.
First up, I should say that they are a versatile adaptable species that mainly eats mice and voles. Banks Voles are a particular favourite. They can also eat beetles and berries. Their droppings are their most frequently seen signs. They are sausage shaped and are usually laid in exposed places, like public footpaths. When dissected you can see the remains of what they’ve eaten, including the bones of mice and voles, parts of beetles and the remains of berries. With regards to berries, what kind of berries they’ve eaten can influence the colour of the droppings. Blue-black could indicate they’ve been eating blaeberries or orange could indicate rowan berries.
They can also eat Red Squirrels, although they are less successful at catching them than they are the non-native Grey Squirrels. Grey Squirrels are heavier and bulkier and cannot escape onto the thinner branches to avoid the Pine Martens the way the Reds can. So, in this respect the Pine Marten has become a benefactor to the Red Squirrel, even though they are natural enemies.
They maintain large territories. Two and a half square kilometres for females and five for males, which they maintain vigorously by patrolling and scent marking their boundaries, designed to keep intruders out.
Their only natural predators in Britain are Golden Eagles and Foxes, Badgers would also kill them if given the chance because they are competitors. In Europe, Bears, Wolves and Lynxes would also be potential predators. With regards to Foxes, although they kill Pine Martens when given the chance sometimes Pine Martens have been known to kill Fox cubs. This was observed by researchers in Poland who were looking to film Badgers in their sett with the use of a camera trap, but a Fox moved in with her two cubs and a Pine Marten was seen investigating the sett earlier in the day, then at night came back to the sett and took each cub.
Although they are known as ‘Pine’ Martens they live in deciduous woodland as well as coniferous woodland and rocky hillsides. They typically avoids open ground to avoid predation.
Places for Dens
Pine Martens typically like to live in old tree cavities, which is one of the reasons why ancient woodland appeals to them so much. They will also use old squirrel dreys. They otherwise can’t create a place of their own.
Pine Martens occur in Scotland, parts of England, North Wales and Ireland but are also found across most of Europe and Asia
The other species that occurs in Europe is the Beech Marten, which has a browner coat colour and a white belly. These live more urban lifestyles, especially in Germany where they’ve been known to live in people’s houses. They also occur in the Mediterranean.
In countries like Finland, Russia and Japan there’s the Sable which is a larger bushier version of the Pine Marten and has in the past been targeted by fur farmers.
They are solitary animals and males and females only come together to breed. After mating the male leaves her to raise the young by herself. The gestation period is around thirty one days but Pine Martens can interrupt their pregnancies at any time, during due to delayed implantation. This is an adaptation designed to prevent young from being born at unfavourable times, such as the middle of winter when there’s less food. The births can be timed so that they happen in the spring, when food is more likely to be abundant.
Young Pine Martens are called kits, and although they can look as large as their mothers when they’re older, they take around six months to become independent. The female has to keep them safe from unfamiliar males, as they will try and kill kits to bring the mother back into season.
In some countries like Holland, Pine Marten breeding success is linked to the boom-and-bust cycles of beech mast and Wood Mice. If Wood Mice numbers crash because of a poor yield of beech mast so do Pine Marten numbers.
They used to be widespread across Britain, five hundred years ago they existed on the outskirts of London. But as their woodland habitat has shrunken so too did their range.
During the Highland Clearances of the 19th Century grouse shooting estates became popular. Queen Victoria was the first to come up with this concept in her Balmoral Estate and other landowners copied her. Grouse shooting estates aim to maximise their profits and minimise their losses and anything that was a threat to grouse numbers was killed. Pine Martens can only produce two to three young a year, four or five if they’re lucky. This meant that they suffered severely from the persecution subjected them to and as a result Pine Martens became very rare and were confined to the remotest parts of North West Scotland, North Wales and Ireland.
They didn’t necessarily live in forests, some of them lived on mountain crags where people couldn’t touch them. The World Wars lessened the persecution and forestry plantations became more widespread. These plantations were planted to replace the vast timber reserves lost during the World Wars, with non-native trees like Sitka Spruce that could mature faster than our native trees.
This allowed the Pine Marten to expand back into the areas it had been lost and there are around four thousand in the whole of Britain. Three thousand seven hundred of those are in Scotland with some in North Wales, Ireland, Kielder Forest in Northumberland with some recent sightings near London.
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