Welcome to the PMRP blog for April! There were two major milestones in the project this month. Firstly, I finished up the woodland surveys for our year one release sites, and secondly, we undertook community meetings in the communities surrounding those sites.
I finished up the woodland surveys, with my final plots in Tarenig Forest in beautiful sunshine. It was such a stark contrast to the days when I was out in January and February, which I remember as bitterly cold snow-soggy trudges. The reward for the legwork is a real familiarity and understanding of the study forests and this has made it all well worthwhile. Familiarity with the layout and network of access in the forests will be invaluable when it comes time to radio track the pine martens following their release. That will not be the time to be groping around in the dark, or getting stuck up a snaking, dead end valley!
My overall conclusion from the woodland surveys is that the forests and interstices are capable of supporting a viable population of pine martens. I will not dwell on the details here, or this blog could run on into the next few months, but the final report from the surveys will be made available on the project website soon, or on request. I will just highlight a few of the key justifications for concluding the forests are suitable. One: the diversity of structure on a forest scale -although not necessarily within the individual coupes, as some coupes are very simple with little associated biodiversity. The forests are a matrix of different coupe cohorts (and species), riparian zones, broadleaf scrub, moorland, crags and scree, and clear-fells of varying ages, providing foraging opportunity and cover. Two: the abundance of Graminoid (grasses) habitat on the edge and sometimes within forest coupes, favours field vole presence (the pine marten’s staple food source) – field vole signs were ubiquitous. Three: the fact that the forests already support the presence of carnivores. Fox, polecat and badger signs were all found in the survey area. Foxes in particular share much dietary overlap with the pine marten, as do buzzards which were common in the forests. Four: there are sufficient fruiting shrubs and trees within the sites (bilberry, bramble and rowan are most significant), and broadleaf regeneration on clear-felled ground. There are some cons: we will have to provide secure denning sites off the ground as I observed precious few potential arboreal denning sites, and the presence of other carnivore species, though a good indicator of the forests ability to provide food, means potential competition. Competition is natural however – we just need to monitor how it plays out in arguably unnatural forest.
The community meetings were very important to us. It is crucial that we are transparent and trusted in our work, and that we take every opportunity to involve local people in the process. After all, you cannot beat local knowledge and we have learnt an awful lot about aspects of the release sites – characteristics and secret quirks – not from online reports or tables of data, but from local people who walk and work in the woods.
We conducted the meetings on consecutive days in Llangurig, Devil’s Bridge and Pont Rhyd y Groes. Fewer folk turned out than anticipated, but we had some quality discussions, following presentations on different aspects of the work from the VWT and Huw Denman, a conservationist, forester, and friend of the Trust. We had excellent discussions about the potential for tourism in the area and the practicalities of how to develop it, which was tempered with people’s concern for the animals, and potential disturbance. This, we assured, should not be an issue due to the pine marten being nocturnal and highly elusive in woodlands. If people want to see them, they have to sit and wait – they are almost impossible to encounter in the woods, especially when you are actually trying! We were all reassured by the local people’s pragmatic approach to keeping poultry. Yes, people keep chickens, and yes they are free range, but they are always bought in at night and if every now and again one is taken by a predator, that’s just the way it goes when living in a place so rich with wildlife.
Another key message communicated to us was that the locals that are interested would like some hands on involvement; whether this is accompanying us out radio tracking, searching for scats, or just reporting sightings when appropriate. We must also involve children at the local schools – the project could provide the perfect bridge for them to cross into the woods for field days and environmental education. From a practical point of view, we were also advised on how to better communicate our work and findings with the community, which has been a challenge in these remote rural areas.
Community involvement is what we are actively trying to achieve; it is not just a buzz word to which we are paying lip service. It is selfish in some ways; the more eyes on the ground, the more effectively we can collect data and monitor the population’s establishment. But we are in effect part of the community ourselves. Our project staff live locally to the release region and we will be spending most of our waking hours in the area when the martens are released this autumn. I for one, having lived in Pont Rhyd y Groes during my first year in Wales and having conducted most of my VWT work in and around the release sites, already feel closely bonded with the area. It is important that we develop close links within the communities and instil a sense of involvement and personal investment in the recovering pine marten population. We are a crowded island after all, and apparently face the reality of wider society’s gradual alienation from the natural world. It is more important than ever that we create emotional and physical links between people and their local nature – perhaps the pine marten can help us take a small step forwards to take people backwards: back to understanding, appreciating, and protecting nature – and feeling a whole lot better for it!
David Bavin, Pine Marten Project Officer