Pine martens retreated to the rocky crags of Snowdonia and the Lake District…


caroline legg: Pine Martin, Scotland, 2019 (CC)

From the LRB:

In Scotland they raid hen houses and birdboxes, make dens in outbuildings and have been tempted into houses. Some will eat from your hand. They mark their territories by extravagantly defecating as they run, leaving their long thin scats in alphabetic shapes like thrown apple peel. Despite the hours of searching, no one has yet found a scat in Shropshire. This is frustrating, as scat DNA analysis would allow us to work out whether the Shropshire martens are a genuine relict ‘English’ population or more recent immigrants from Wales.

There was a time after the last Ice Age when pine martens thrived all across the British Isles. The standard narrative is that they were persecuted to extinction in England by gamekeepers. The truth may be simpler, and in some ways sadder. Unlike other Mustelidae (such as weasels, badgers, otters, stoats and polecats), pine martens are arboreal, and can only breed in suitable den holes in ancient trees. Since the Neolithic period, we have been destroying our forests. Deprived of dens, the pine martens retreated to the next best thing: rocky crags. They lasted in Snowdonia and the Lake District longer than most places, and survived into the present in the mountain fastness of north-west Scotland.

The turn of the last century, the era of the evil gamekeepers, also happened to be the low point for tree cover in the UK. Things have improved since, but we still average only 13 per cent cover, compared to 30 per cent for France or Germany, where pine martens thrive.

As well as a lack of den sites, pine martens in England face another difficulty. Out in the open, away from trees, they fall prey to foxes.

“Return of the Pine Marten”, Quentin Shaw, London Review of Books

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