Innovative mammal conservation

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FAQs

The Pine Marten

Where in Britain do pine martens live?

Today, pine martens are found throughout much of northern and central Scotland, as far south as the Central Belt, with some populations in parts of southern Scotland. Pine martens have begun to spread over the Scottish/English border and re-colonise areas of Northumberland and Cumbria. Elsewhere in England, there are pine martens of unknown origin in Shropshire and Hampshire. Between 2015 and 2017, the VWT translocated 51 pine martens from Scotland to mid-Wales, leading to the re-establishment of a viable marten population in Wales. In 2019, a partnership led by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust translocated 20 pine martens to the Forest of Dean with the long-term aim of two further translocations over the coming years.

What habitat do pine martens use?

Pine martens prefer three dimensionally complex habitat and have excellent climbing skills that have evolved in forested habitats. They prefer to den in tree cavities in which they rest and breed, but can find shelter in thick vegetation, rocky terrain, manmade structures and large birds nests.

What do pine martens eat?

Pine martens have a varied, seasonal diet and will eat what is locally plentiful. This may include small mammals, fruit and berries, birds, eggs, insects and carrion. Pine martens may be attracted to wildlife hides and human dwellings, where people tempt them with peanuts, raisins, peanut butter and jam.

Do pine martens eat squirrels?

Pine martens and red squirrels have evolved together throughout their Eurasian range in a natural predator/prey relationship, though studies in Britain and Ireland highlight a low occurrence of red squirrel in pine marten diet. Recent research in Ireland by Dr Emma Sheehy and colleagues has suggested that where pine martens are naturally recovering their former range, grey squirrel numbers are decreasing, allowing recolonisation of woodland by red squirrels (see paper here).

A follow up study in Scotland by Sheehy and the University of Aberdeen supported the findings of the Irish study, suggesting that pine martens have the potential to suppress grey squirrels where they co-occur, but not red squirrels, which appeared to benefit from pine marten presence (see paper here). Though compelling, the mechanism behind this relationship remains unclear, and further research is required to understand the dynamic between the three species. Despite uncertainty on whether the return of the pine marten will ultimately lead to the extirpation or suppression of grey squirrel abundance, it is suggested that it will likely profoundly alter the overall competitive interaction between the two squirrel species through potential impacts on squirrel pox dynamics.

What should I do if I see a pine marten?

If you see a pine marten in England or Wales, please report it to us. If possible, please try and take a photograph or video. If you’re in Scotland, the local biological records centre, will be interested to receive the record.

Where can I watch pine martens?

Pine martens are largely nocturnal and not often seen. There are several wildlife hides in Scotland where pine martens visit to take bait put out for them, including the Speyside Wildlife hide in the Cairngorms. There are also various holiday cottages and B&Bs where pine martens are attracted to feeding stations.

Why reintroduce/reinforce pine martens?

The pine marten is part of our rich wildlife heritage. It plays an integral role in a healthy, balanced woodland ecosystem and can be an important predator of pest species, such as grey squirrels. As a bonus, re-establishing pine martens in England and Wales also has the potential to benefit the rural economy, as has been the case in Scotland, through the creation of tourism opportunities for people who are keen to see this captivating woodland animal.

Pine marten populations in England and Wales have become so small and isolated that they are very unlikely to recover naturally without intervention. While the population in Scotland is spreading southwards, it is unlikely that it will spread to re-colonise Wales and central and southern England. This is due to the large conurbations in north-west and central England and a lack of appropriate habitat in some of these areas. Translocating animals from healthy populations to suitable areas of England and Wales is a way of restoring viable pine marten populations to Wales and southern England.

What legal protection do pine martens have?

Pine martens are listed under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), which means that it is illegal to intentionally kill or injure pine martens, or disturb their dens. Any research that could disturb pine martens, such as trapping animals or monitoring den boxes, must be done under a licence from the relevant statutory body.

Can I reintroduce pine martens to my woodland?

Pine martens are largely solitary and normally exclude members of the same sex from their home ranges. Home range size varies widely according to habitat. In Britain a single male home range can vary from 33km² in upland spruce to 3km² in more productive, lowland woodland. For females this is smaller, from 10km² to just under 1km² in these habitats. This means that many woodlands will not be large enough to sustain a viable population of pine martens.

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 above ground sites are thought to be essential in avoiding such predation.

Any proposed translocation of pine martens must be considered very carefully and comply with IUCN guidelines on translocations, whether for re-introduction or reinforcement (re-stocking). The importance of animal welfare and health screening is emphasised in these guidelines, as is the requirement for a detailed ecological assessment to maintain favourable conservation status of this protected species.

Useful links

Download the ‘Advice note: Release of pine martens into the wild in Britain’ PDF.

IUCN/SSC Reintroduction Specialist Group website http://iucnsscrsg.org

Scottish Natural Heritage website https://www.nature.scot/professional-advice/safeguarding-protected-areas-and-species/reintroducing-native-species

 

 

Polecats

Where do polecats live?

Polecats have a wide distribution across Europe, from Britain and Portugal in the west to the Ural Mountains of Russia in the east. They have never been found in Ireland. In Britain, the polecat population is recovering and expanding its range, following a severe historical decline. Polecats are currently widespread in Wales, central and much of southern England, with isolated populations in northern England and parts of Scotland (Perthshire, Fife and Argyll). See distribution map here or read this report

 

How can I tell the difference between a true polecat and a ferret or a polecat/ferret hybrid?

The polecat is the ancestor of the domestic ferret. Polecats and ferrets will breed, creating polecat-ferret hybrids. This can occur when domestic or working ferrets escape or are lost into the wild, or where feral ferret populations are established (although this is rare in Britain), creating opportunities for ferrets to mate with wild polecats.

Polecat-ferret hybrids typically occur at the edge of the polecat’s range and in reintroduced populations. It’s thought that the presence of ferret genes among the polecat population is not a threat to the population and true polecats appear to ‘outcompete’ hybrids in the long term.

Polecats and ferrets can be distinguished by genetic analysis and also by their phenotype (pelage/fur) characteristics, although this is not 100% accurate. Polecats and ferrets are quite different behaviourally too. Ferrets tend to be more tame and docile and generally lack the awareness skills needed to survive in the wild. See our leaflet Polecats and Ferrets how to tell them apart

 

What habitats and food do polecats require?

Polecats are fairly generalist and not dependent on any one habitat type. In Britain, they are more numerous in lowland landscapes, but across their range in mainland Europe they inhabit a variety of habitats including riparian vegetation, wetlands, grasslands, pastures, agricultural land and montane pine forests. Polecats use existing structures for den sites, such as rabbit burrows, haystacks and log piles.

In Britain, most of the polecat’s diet comprises rabbits. They also eat rats and other small rodents, amphibians and birds.

 

Do I need to be worried about polecats visiting my garden?

Polecats will visit gardens and may take food left out for other animals, such as foxes or badgers. Polecats occasionally den in gardens, under decking, sheds or in compost piles. Polecats are not a threat to cats or dogs and will avoid confrontation with other animals where possible. Polecats are smaller than domestic cats and dogs and are likely to come off worse in any encounter with the two.

 

Are polecats a threat to chickens or game birds?

Polecats can be attracted to concentrations of vulnerable livestock, such as poultry, penned pheasants and captive wildfowl and may kill birds if they can gain easy access to poultry and game pens.

Several husbandry techniques are available to prevent polecats accessing pens or coops, such as securing domestic fowl at night in solid, custom-built hen-houses, and nightly closure of ‘pop-holes’ – the ground level access points that allow birds to re-enter pheasant pens. Polecats may squeeze through gaps as small as 4cm, so pens should be built with no gaps larger than this and wire mesh and wooden henhouses should be checked regularly for gaps or weak points. Although polecats can climb, most attempts to break into game and poultry pens occur at ground level.

 

What are the main threats to polecats?

A major cause of mortality in polecats is vehicle collisions, particularly during the mating season (February-March) and juvenile dispersal (September-October). Polecats are also vulnerable to secondary rodenticide poisoning. They become exposed to second-generation anticoagulant poison through eating rats and other small mammals which have ingested poison. It’s not yet known whether this will affect the polecat’s ongoing recovery in Britain. Polecats may also die or become injured in traps set for other species, such as grey squirrels, stoats and weasels. Polecats have no natural predators in Britain but are occasionally killed by dogs.

 

What legal protection do polecats have?

The polecat is listed on Schedule 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits certain methods of killing or taking of the animal.

 

What should I do if I see a polecat?

If you have seen a polecat, please report it to your local Biological Records Centre (almost every county has one) or log it on The Mammal Society’s “Mammal Mapper” App on your phone.

3-4 Bronsil Courtyard, Eastnor, Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 1EP
01531 636441 | enquiries@vwt.org.uk