Ecology is the study of organisms and how they interact with their environment. The relationship between creatures of all kinds and their habitat. A relatively broad topic. Today I will be narrowing this down a bit for you. Focusing on the beautiful tree bounding ‘Pine Marten’. As a resident of the UK and a lover of all manner of creatures, I found it very interesting to learn about the pine marten. For example, this animal is critically endangered in England but is doing better in other areas of the UK such as Scotland.
Upon researching more into the pine marten, I found that this deadly tree assassin is actually a very important piece of the intricate tapestry that is our ecosystem. I will go into this more as I take you on an informative journey, learning about what happened to the pine marten in the UK, what good they do for the woodland animals and how you can help bring this animal back to our forests.
I have found a plethora of information on the situation, effect and history of the European Pine Martin in the UK. Of course, I do not have all the information here. If you are interested in learning more, please check out the official conservation websites and learn more about these amazing creatures.
Meet this Adorable Treetop Hunter
The pine marten is part of the ‘Mustelidae Family’ this includes a whole lot of animals such as otters, badgers, wolverines and weasels to name a few. They tend to share quite a few features with other creatures in this family. For example, much like the weasel, the pine marten has a long and flexible body with shorter legs. They grow to be about 60-70cm long and can weigh anywhere between 1 and 2 kilograms. They are essentially about the size of a small cat. The pine marten has thick brown fur with a yellowish bib over their throat and chest.
They are extremely agile and as treetop hunters they have to be. Their long furry tails and large-clawed feel help them to be excellent climbers and allow them to bound through the trees with ease. These animals have a varied diet but are largely carnivorous with a taste for small mammals and birds. Although they do eat fungi, berries, eggs and nuts when they can find them.
Pine martens get their name from their choice of habitat. Preferring woodland homes and spending a great deal of their time in pine trees. Although they are found in many parts of Europe, they are quite rare in the UK. Pine martens are more common and doing well in Scotland and Ireland but are endangered in England and Wales. Programs are underway to reintroduce them into the woodlands though. I will get more into pine martens being reintroduced later on in this blog. For now let us look at how they might affect their environment.
The symbiotic relationship between this elusive hunter and the various woodland creatures is quite amazing. They are reliant on a well-connected environment with a variety of creatures and plenty of trees. They are predominantly carnivores, but as I said, they do like some berries, seeds and mushrooms. The pine marten is most active at night but can be seen in the day.
They prefer well wooded areas but can be seen in more rock areas such as crags and scrubs. They have a particular love for making their home in the hollow of trees. Their territory can span over five to fifteen kilometres for a female and as much as double that for a male. They also tend to be quite territorial and solitary creatures.
When a pine marten reaches two to three years of age, they reach breeding maturity. They tend to have their offspring between March and April and at least a month long gestation period; they have between one and five kits. After just six months, these creatures are completely independent. Their natural longevity is around eight to ten years, but they have been known to live longer in captivity.
But why are pine martens so important to the ecology of the woodland? The answer lies in their dietary preferences and they may be the key to helping another species out of difficulty.
The Pine Marten’s Effect on Woodland Life
The pine marten is not the only woodland creature in danger of being wiped out. But before I can talk more about the pine marten I must give you a little background on what is happening in the woodlands of England. The red squirrel has been in competition with the invasive grey squirrel. With the poor red squirrel being outperformed due to the prolific breeding of the grey squirrel and the fact that they tend to eat green acorns. This makes food harder to come by for the indigenous red squirrel. Not only that, but the grey squirrel carries a disease known as ‘Parapoxvirus’ which does not seem to affect their own health but is seen to kill their red squirrel cousins. All of this has affected the red squirrels’ numbers and they are now
Now, what does all this have to do with the pine marten? As it would have it. The pine marten could very well be the solution to the red squirrels’ troubles. Research suggests that they would prey on grey squirrels . They are bigger, slower and spend more time on the ground than the red squirrels. Making them ideal sources of food for the pine marten. These studies are ongoing, however as things stand, reintroducing the pine marten to England’s forest could really help bring back the red squirrel. As well as helping the trees which are damaged or have their bark stripped by the grey squirrels.
What Happened to them?
Six thousand years ago the pine marten was the second most common carnivore in Britain. Yet they declined to near extinction in this country. So what happened? If the pine marten is so important to its environment, why were they persecuted? The answer lies several centuries in the past.
During the late 1800’s, the pine marten lost a great deal of their habitats due to deforestation. The biggest reason this happened during the 1800’s was because civilization required a lot of wood. Specifically for the new steam engines and the coal industry. This greatly affected the pine marten and many other creatures that are called the forest home.
If that was not enough, the fur industry preyed upon this agile predator. Killing thousands of them. But even before deforestation began, the Tudors had begun the slaughter of many woodland creatures. In 1532, Henry VIII had passed an act known as ‘The Preservation of Grain Act’. This meant that any creature seen as vermin would be slaughtered. That, coupled with the fur trade, affected many woodland creatures and drove many to the verge of extinction.
This depleted the number further, but the persecution of this amazing creature persisted further than even that. Gamekeepers shoot any predator on sight. The safety of their pheasants and other birds is prized more than the predators searching for their next meal. So, with the loss of their home and relentless persecution, the pine marten was soon in major decline. By the 20th century, they were close to extinction. Only a few pockets survived across the UK and in much smaller numbers.
The persecution of so many creatures caused the wildlife and ecology to suffer. Each animal has its place in the chain and each is responsible for an important job. The pine marten’s depletion had an effect on the population of other animals. As I have said, the grey squirrel grew in numbers, which caused the native red squirrel to decline.
How Are They Doing Now?
But it is not all doom and gloom for the pine marten. Over the years their numbers have increased although they are still extremely rare in England. However, Scotland has a thriving population with a few pockets spread over England. Overall, there are about 3-4000 between Scotland and England but there are likely many more in Ireland. Let us take a look at what is happening in the UK country by country.
The population in Scotland alone is estimated to be about 3,700 adult pine martens. With this thriving population there are some relocation projects which involve taking some martens from the Scottish population and moving them to other regions of the UK with a much lower population. Much like England there was persecution and hunting which drove this species to near extinction. In 1988 it was made illegal to kill one of these creatures and since then they have been doing very well.
In Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland there are about 2,700 pine marten. Which makes these elusive creatures one of the rarest mammal species on the island. Similarly to the rest of the UK, they were persecuted and almost wiped out by gamekeepers, loss of habitat and fur traders. But after they became protected the populations were able to rebuild and have since improved, regardless of being a rare mammal in Ireland.
The pine marten all but disappeared from the Welsh forests and even now the numbers are very low. However, The Vincent Wildlife Trust started a redistribution project between 2015 and 2017. So 51 pine marten were translocated from Scotland and set free in the Welsh forests. This was done in the hope of re-establishing a thriving marten population.
England has very few pine marten and the places that do have them are few and far between. The number of them in England are not conclusive but much like Wales there are less than 100 of them in the country. But not all is lost. The pine marten is not spreading from southern Scotland and naturally re-colonising parts of Northumberland and Cumbria. There are of course, relocation programs which are working on re-introducing the elusive pine marten back into England’s forests. Places such as ‘The Wild Wood Trust’ have a breeding program which is aimed at one day releasing these creatures back into the forests of England.
What Can You Do to Help?
If you are an animal lover I imagine you might want to help out with the various projects trying to the recovery of these charismatic creatures. There are a few things you can do that would really help the re-introduction of pine martens in the woodlands.
First on the list is to report any sightings of these creatures to the ‘Pine Marten Recovery Project’. For example the ‘Vincent Wildlife Trust’ as a web-page which allows you to fill in your details and the circumstances of your Pine Marten sighting in England.
The second thing you could do to help is donate to the recovery projects. The ‘Vincent Wildlife Trust’ once again shares more information of how these projects are going about and the details you will need to give in order to donate your money to the cause.
Concluding this Week’s Article
That is all for this week readers, I hope you have learned a little about the pine marten and the ecology surrounding this amazing, charismatic woodland creature. Creatures of all kinds do not deserve persecution and have every right to be on this planet as much as we do. As humans I believe it is a duty of ours to care for all creatures great and small. You can do your part in conserving the beautiful creatures around you. Donating to charities, reporting sightings of rare animals in your area. Taking care of the environment around you, by not littering or reducing plastic. Anything you can do to help our world and all the creatures on it is a great help.
If you liked this article you might enjoy a few of my travel guides. My personal favorites are:
I strive to inspire and teach anyone that will read my work. There is a lot to explore out in the world. From ancient cultures to intricate architecture, which is amazing to behold. Recently though I have been inspired by the plight of the animals around me. The pine marten is a fun, quirky and charismatic creature which I recently read has been in decline. So I thought an article to educate my readers would be a good idea. As a nature conservationist’s daughter, I feel strongly about the protection of all creatures. You might think that there is not much you can do to help out with conserving and protecting the native species of your home. But I assure you that there is always something happening and anything you do. No matter how small, it will make a difference in the long run.