So there I was, driving down the M6 in a van with four pine martens and a PhD student called Patrick.
It’s not often you get a chance to do something as bizarre and exciting as this, and I was thrilled (and slightly nervous) to be invited along as a co-driver during one of the Pine Marten Recovery Project’s autumn translocations of pine marten from Scotland to mid Wales.
Since working with VWT on the ‘Mammals in a Sustainable Environment’ project and assisting with some of the baseline mammal surveys in the planned pine marten release area, I was keen to continue with the PMRP as a volunteer and be part of this fantastic conservation story in Wales.
My motivation as a volunteer wasn’t entirely selfless, as the trip to Scotland provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see pine marten at close range as they underwent veterinary checks and had a radio-collar fitted.
Once the vet pronounced them ready, Patrick transferred the four crates into the vehicle ensuring each crate was securely in place for the journey. Our passengers were very well – behaved, apart from the occasional unwelcome contribution to an otherwise fragrant vehicle. We stopped regularly to top-up food and water containers – the Scottish weather was awful, and we got soaked each time we stopped, but the grateful munching sounds from the pine martens made it all worthwhile.
The drivers of each group of martens were allowed to choose the names of two of their passengers and our overnight journey in the vehicle gave us plenty of time to ponder new names. We finally decided on Marley – his radio collar had a Jamaican flag on it – and Portia. No reason other than it seemed like an excellent name for a pine marten (well, it was 2am at this point!).
We arrived back in Wales just before dawn to meet the Welsh PMRP team, and transferred the pine martens to their new homes – individual release pens where they would stay for the next week.
Having become acquainted with Marley and friends (also known as PMs 16 to 20) during our long journey, I was keen to find out what they were up to once they were released. I have since spent several dark winter evenings driving around mid Wales with various members of the VWT team, listening to white noise and occasional bleeps on the vehicle’s radio receiver.
I’m sure the other volunteers will agree that we have been made to feel very much part of the VWT team – we have all been trained to use the radio-tracking equipment and assist with map-reading, in return for providing stimulating conversation and witty banter (or so we hoped) to keep the VWT staff going during their daily eight hour search. We were even given our own advent calendar to open in the run up to Christmas!
It’s difficult to explain the excitement of hearing the ‘bleep’ of a pine marten radio-collar. There’s a tense moment of ‘was that…?’ ‘Did you hear it?’ followed by a frantic search for a safe place to park before the signal is lost again (we discovered that the A44 below Eisteddfa Gurig is particularly poorly equipped with lay-bys suitable for tracking pine martens. Do the road planners not think of these things?!). Once safely parked, the receiver is attached to a handheld aerial, and the direction of the signal located. A compass bearing is then taken, and it’s back in the truck and off to find another spot where the signal can be heard. A second compass bearing allows triangulation of the pine marten’s location.
On each visit, it was fascinating to have an update from PMRP staff on the latest movements of each pine marten (“So, number 4 was just outside Devil’s bridge last weekend, but popped across to Hafod on Tuesday. We’ll try there first”). By the time all 20 animals had arrived in Wales, it became a full-scale soap opera. I hope they continue to thrive in their new home.
It has been such an exciting project to be involved with and I feel very privileged to have been able to volunteer with PMRP. (How many other people can write ‘ fed blueberries to a pine marten at Stirling services’ on their CV?). It has been fantastic to be part of something that will leave a real, lasting legacy to mammal conservation in Wales.
Aline Denton, PMRP Volunteer