Pine marten

The Guardian reports that a European pine marten (Martes martes) has been spotted in London for the first time in more than a century.

For most of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, gamekeepers targeted pine martens because they were believed to prey on game birds. This, combined with the loss of woodland habitat, led to the species’ probable extinction in England some time in the first two decades of the last century.

The restoration of woodland habitat and the enactment of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has enabled this fierce predator to stage a return. In July 2015, the first confirmed sighting of a pine marten in England since 1915 was recorded by an amateur photographer in woodland in Shropshire. This was followed by sightings in Northumberland in 2018.

In 2019, eighteen pine martens were released into a secret and remote location in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Reintroductions are also planned for Exmoor and Dartmoor in Devon.

For lack of just such a predator, we have a grey squirrel problem in the reserve. They damage our trees, they eat birds’ eggs and nestlings and they monopolise prime wildlife habitat, which reduces our biodiversity. We planted hazel coppices in the hopes of attracting dormice but the grey squirrels strip the nuts from the trees almost as soon as they ripen.

Squirrel damage to the reserve’s trees.

Our moderate climate allows the reserve’s squirrels to raise two or three litters every year and, as an invasive alien, they have few natural predators to control their population. A pine marten would serve that purpose admirably.

A marten’s territory is anything up to 25 square kilometres and is fiercely defended, so a nest of five or six kits will, when they reach maturity, spread out over a substantial area. It’s about a 100 miles from the Forest of Dean to London but less than 50 to our reserve. Is the London sighting a deliberate release or the result of the natural reach of a successful, wide ranging, breeding population? If the latter, how long will it be before a pine marten is spotted in Southwick?

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