Pine martens: good or bad for the countryside?

by Ben O’Rourke

“If I were going to choose somewhere to radio track pine martens, I wouldn’t have chosen this,” says Craig Shuttleworth, who’s researching pine martens for Bangor University.

“This terrain is a nightmare. The animal can go underground. Sometimes I come in and it takes me ages and I could have found him straight away if I’d come from a different direction… like today.”

Elusive: Craig Shuttleworth finds the topography troubling when tracking a pine marten

We’re having trouble finding one of the pine martens that Craig released in North Wales. The hunt takes us along dirt roads, through dense forest and open moorland until we track it to its den about a mile from where we started. 

Pine martens are controversial creatures. They have been known to raid chicken coups and pheasant pens, according to some. But the people leading the reintroductions across England and Wales insist their negatives are exaggerated. 

“Obviously you don’t want to lose pens of poults if there are predators about,” says Cat McNicol of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which is introducing the animals in the Forest of Dean. “Their diet includes fruit and groundnesting birds so impact on grouse is minimal.”

Cat McNicol is leading one of the pine marten release programmes in Gloucestershire

Cat says planting fruit trees around pens may take some of the pressure off, with pine martens distracted by the easier prey of something hanging on a branch. 

Both Craig and Cat tout the animal’s effects on grey squirrels, whose numbers decline in areas where there are pine martens. Craig sees pine martens as natural alternative to killing greys, including traps or contraceptive drugs developed by DEFRA.

There are concerns the omnivore is so successful at surviving, it could outnumber badgers and turn into a new problem.

Craig at least doesn’t see it that way and celebrates the fact the captive pine marten we’re looking for has managed to quickly adapt to life in the wild.

More from Cat McNichol at BASC.org.uk/pine-martens-back-from-the-brink

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