Distribution and status
The pine marten (Martes martes
) is a medium-sized mustelid native to Britain and Ireland and probably arrived here soon after the end of the last glaciation, about 9,500 years ago. It has been suggested that 6,500 years ago, when Britain and Ireland had greater tree cover, pine martens were the second most common carnivore in Britain!
The clearance of our woodlands, trapping and persecution had a devastating effect on the pine marten across Britain and Ireland and by 1915 was found in just a few of the last remaining more remote areas. Small populations survived in Wales and the Marches and in areas of northern England, but relatively strong populations were still to be found only in some parts of the Scottish Highlands where persecution pressures were less.
Today, populations are expanding in number and range in Scotland and Ireland (see 2012 report on pine marten range expansion in Scotland here). In England and Wales the population has not recovered from its decline and pine martens occur at low densities with a very restricted distribution. In England most reports come from rugged upland areas such as the Lake District, Pennines, Cheviots and North York Moors; similarly in Wales the main strongholds are the Cambrian Mountains, Snowdonia and the uplands of central southern Wales.
Ecology and behaviour
Although pine martens are carnivores, their diet is omnivorous, and they eat a variety of foods, including carrion, small mammals, birds and their eggs, invertebrates, fruits and nuts. Although pine martens are commonly referred to as nocturnal, they are frequently active during the day, especially in the summer months.
Like many mustelids, pine martens are largely solitary and normally exclude members of the same sex from their home ranges. Home range size varies vastly according to habitat. In males, ranges vary from 33km² in upland spruce in Scotland down to 0.4km² in lowland woodland in Ireland, and for females from 10km² to 0.2km² in these habitats.
Pine martens are slow breeders, with females not usually breeding until their third year. Mating occurs in July and August and litters of typically one to three young are born in late March or early April. The young, called kits, kittens or cubs, emerge from the breeding den around June and by three months of age they resemble miniature adults. Pine martens rarely excavate their own dens, preferring existing cavities in tree holes, squirrel dreys or rock crevices. As foxes are known to catch and kill martens, these sites are thought to be essential in avoiding such predation.
The morphology of scats (faeces) varies tremendously but they tend to be dark in colour and 4-12cm long x 0.8-1.8cm in diameter. They often have a coiled and twisted appearance and will contain food remains including fur, bone and plant matter. They usually have a slightly fruity smell (likened to parma violets). Scats are placed in latrines at well-used dens (eg on lids of den boxes), as well as at sites elsewhere in an individual's home range, where they probably fulfil a social communication role.
The five-toed but slightly cat-like forefoot imprints measure approximately 40 x 45mm for females and 55 x 65mm for males; fur on the underside of feet in winter may blur prints and make them look larger, especially in soft snow. Indistinct trails of bounding martens (stride length 60-100cm) may resemble those of hares, with prints in groups of two or three where one or both hindfeet have registered over prints of forefeet.
Elevated den sites are preferred to keep martens safe from predators and provide insulation and shelter from the elements, and so hollow trees, owl boxes and the roofs of dwelling houses are often used, as well as purpose-built pine marten den boxes. Where such elevated dens are absent, they may den on the ground in rabbit burrows, rocky outcrops or under tree root plates for example.
Pine martens are generally silent, but often make a variety of noises during the mating season, including shrill 'yowls', growling, high pitched chattering, squealing or snarling noises. Listen here.
Since the mid-1990s, The Vincent Wildlife Trust has been gathering and evaluating reported sightings of pine martens from England and Wales. This work suggests that the species still survives in certain core areas of northern England and parts of Wales. The clustered nature of these sightings, and their consistency with the recent historical distribution of pine martens, suggests that these sightings provide a reliable indication of current pine marten distribution.
If you have seen a pine marten in England or Wales, we would love to hear about it.
The VWT has published, or has contributed to, a number of research papers on the pine marten - click here for full list.
Pine Marten Projects
To find out more about our pine marten projects and other work please click here.