People & Pine Martens in Wales project update

The VWT has recently launched its latest project, ‘People and Pine Martens in Wales’, funded by the Co-operative.

Firstly, I would like to thank the Co-operative and its members, without which the project would not have been conceived. The broad aim of the project is to raise awareness of the plight of the pine marten here in Wales, to take practical measures to locate the animals, to advocate marten friendly habitat enhancement, and to engage the public opinion on pine martens with a public survey.

The project could not have started at a better time, with the finding of a marten carcass near Newtown in November! It was exciting in itself, representing an unequivocal record of a pine marten in Wales (the first carcass in 40 years), but what was really encouraging was that following DNA analysis, we could confirm that it was a native, wild animal, and not an escapee. Furthermore, it was a young male, indicating that there is probably breeding activity in the source population.

So they are out there, just extremely rare. This fact, coupled with their extremely elusive behaviour, nocturnal habits, and preference for dense cover and woodland, mean we have our work cut out locating them. Still, we who work with carnivores love a challenge!

The main focus for the monitoring aspect of the project is Cwm Rheidol, a beautiful valley with a mining history, where a marten scat (faeces) was found in 2007. Predominantly oak wood, there are chunks of conifer plantation, patches of gorse heathland on the upper fringes, and a steep, complex system of gorges near Devils Bridge in west Wales. Traditionally, scat surveys and hair tubes (a simple way to snag hair, from which DNA can be procured) have proved effective at detecting pine marten where they are known to exist. It seems however, that martens In Wales are so rare, that we either cannot locate their scats, or that at such low densities their territorial behaviour has broken down (they mark territory boundaries with their scats). Recent findings from a colleague in Ireland have also revealed that martens need to ‘learn’ to use hair tubes – we thought previously that they were so inquisitive, they would naturally investigate them. This provides us with a problem – we have a very rare animal that doesn’t know what to do with our hair tubes! 

We are looking into novel methods to combine with the old to try and detect them. We have acquired camera traps, which have been used to great effect for a number of carnivore species, including pine marten, and are also going to trial ‘lure sticks’. These consist simply of roughly hewn timber stakes, impregnated with valerian tincture, which has proven effective for attracting marten in Europe and Scotland. So hopefully, by the next blog update, I might be able to provide some interesting camera trap footage, and report on early trials of the lure sticks!

By David Bavin, People & Pine Martens in Wales Project Officer

Find out about other organisations who are working to conserve British mammals.