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August 2012

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Pine marten

Dick Warner reports on a remarkable come-back

 

Pine martens are our rarest and most elusive large mammal, and most people have never seen a wild one. But they're increasing in numbers and spreading at a quite rapid rate. And, although they're shy and largely nocturnal, they have an odd habit of making dens in buildings, even occupied ones, and they can become used to the presence of humans if they're not harassed.

Some years ago I stayed in a hotel in Killarney. There was a glass case in the reception area with two amateurishly-stuffed animals in it. I asked the manager about them and he said that there was a lad out the road who lived in a thatched house and he was concerned because two mink had taken up residence in his thatch. So somebody shot the mink for him and the hotel chef stuffed them. The glass case contained two badly stuffed pine martens.

Mink and pine martens are closely related and superficially similar, although pine martens are fox-coloured and have much larger ears and a cat-like face while mink are normally the colour of dark chocolate. They're quite different in their habits. Mink like to swim and pine martens don't. Pine martens like to climb trees and mink don't. The Irish language name for a pine marten is cat crainn, the cat of the trees.

They were well-known to our Irish-speaking ancestors because they were once common and widespread. They started to decline in the 1600s. Deforestation and fur-trapping were the original causes of the decline but in the 1800s they were persecuted by game-keepers and the final nail in the coffin came in the last century when farmers started using poisoned baits to kill foxes and crows - pine martens are fond of carrion and particularly vulnerable to strychnine baits. But about twenty-five years ago strychnine was banned and pine martens were fully protected by law and the population started to bounce back. Before the resurgence they were largely confined to the western seaboard, with a stronghold in the Burren and small populations in the Killarney area, the Slieve Bloom mountains, a wood in Co. Waterford and another in Co. Meath. Nowadays they're probably present in every Irish county.

Research carried out in Poland came up with an interesting observation. Where pine martens were present red squirrels thrived but grey squirrels did not. It's not known for certain why this should be but the theory is that pine martens prey selectively on grey squirrels which spend a lot more time foraging on the ground than the reds, making them easier to pounce on. Pine martens are excellent climbers but if they pursue a squirrel up a tree the reds, which are considerably lighter than the greys, can escape by clinging on to flimsy twigs at the ends of branches that wouldn't support the weight of either a grey squirrel or a pine marten.

If this is true it has obvious implication for the conservation of the declining red squirrel population in this country. It's interesting that grey squirrels have been in this country for about a century but have never really managed to colonise areas west of the Shannon which were the traditional strongholds of the pine marten. This is despite the fact that the original grey squirrel introduction in 1911 was on the eastern bank of the Shannon in Co. Longford.

Recent research has shown that in two areas of the country, Laois/Offaly and Cavan/Monaghan, where pine martens have re-established themselves the arrival of grey squirrels has not resulted in the normal decline of the native reds. So zoologists from the Mammal Ecology Group at NUI Galway are carrying out further studies on these three woodland mammals to try and learn more about how they interact and whether the return of the pine marten could save the red squirrel.

And if you've never seen a pine marten, it is by no means impossible that one could turn up in your garden some time soon, particularly if there are plenty of trees around. Then you really would have an exciting and exotic species to add to your list of garden wildlife.

 

 

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