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Pine Marten

The Pine Marten by Thomas Bewick

Pine Martens are about the size of a small cat with a fox-like face, pricked rounded ears with a pale border, dark brown fur, yellow/cream throat patch and a long bushy tail. They range in length between 46 cm for a small female to 54 cm in a large male with an additional tail length of up to 27 cm. Weight ranges between 0.9 kg in smaller females and 2.2 kg in larger males. In captivity Pine Martens have lived up to 17 years; in the wild they average about three to four years (Harris and Yalden, 2008).

They are a member of the Mustelid family of which eight species are present in the UK (Harris and Yalden, 2008). These include Stoat Mustela erminea, Weasel M. nivalis, Polecat M. putorius and Mink Neovison vison. All eight species are present in Northumbria although their distribution and density within the region varies. The Pine Marten is more arboreal than other Mustelids and is adapted to exploit three-dimensional woodland and rocky habitats. It is a generalist and opportunistic feeder, predating on mammals including squirrels, birds, eggs, fungi, fruit, honey, nuts, and carrion, and sometimes coming to bird tables for scraps (Harris and Yalden, 2008).

A largely solitary animal, mating takes place between June and August with implantation being delayed. Young are born usually in April of the following year with an average of three young born in a secure den site (Birks and Messenger, 2010). Martens are known to use artificial nest boxes and will den in buildings, but mostly denning is within cavities, in rocks, tree holes, disused nests of birds and squirrel dreys (Harris and Yalden, 2008).

In the UK the Pine Marten is principally confined to wooded areas of north, central and western Scotland, with a 1980-1981 re-introduction to Dumfries and Galloway. Home range varies considerably depending on habitat quality and prey availability. It can vary from as little as 2.23 km2 for a male and 1.49 km2 for a female in high quality woodland such as Bialowieza Forest in Poland to in excess of 20 km2 for a male and 8 km2 for a female in poor quality woodland in Scotland (Birks and Messenger, 2010). Range expansion is reduced by poor habitat, persecution and possible competition with Fox Vulpes vulpes and wild-living cats (Harris and Yalden, 2008). Fox are known to predate martens in Scandinavia (Lindstrom et al, 1995), predation being highest where Fox are most abundant and woodland cover is low, as in much of the UK. This could be slowing marten re-colonisation of the UK. There is an old Cumbrian saying that when foxes are plentiful martens are scarce, which may turn out to be a truism.

The Pine Marten is protected under both European and UK legislation but unfortunately, despite this legal protection, martens are still killed inadvertently each year by traps or poisoned bait set out for crows or foxes (Trees for Life website, 2012).

From Neolithic times, man has exploited the pelt of the Pine Marten. It was used at court during the Middle Ages, and as numbers became scarce skins were imported (Fairnell, 2003). Harting (1886) records valuable Pine Marten skins being exported from Newcastle upon Tyne in the Middle Ages, although there is debate about whether Harting confused export with import figures. However Pine Martens were still widespread but sparsely distributed throughout the UK and Ireland into the 19th century when increased persecution to support game-keeping caused its rapid decline. By 1915 martens were found in just a few remote areas of the UK. Small populations survived in Wales and in areas of northern England; relatively strong populations still lingered in the north west Scottish Highlands (Yalden, 1999).

In north east England the Pine Marten has a long history as an indigenous species; there is a 7th century reference to martens in the Welsh Cradle Song “Pais Dinogad” (Dinogad’s smock), which refers to the River Derwent in north east England (Morgan, 1993), but it was already regarded as being in decline when Mennell and Perkins (1864) wrote that “although the animal cannot be called common, it is widely distributed over both counties.” They quote Wallis from a century earlier: “the late humane and lamented Edward Charleton, Esq. of Reedsmouth had a young one taken in that neighbourhood, which, by kind treatment, grew as tame and as familiar as his other house animals and continued with him two years, brisk and lively.” This was not the only Northumberland marten kept as a pet: Mr Yellowley of South Shields had a marten in his possession which had been trapped at West Chirton House in North Shields in 1883. He eventually sent it to Bostock and Wombwells menagerie from whence its body was eventually returned to him for preservation (Yellowley, 1886).

By the end of the 19th century the Pine Marten was believed extinct or extremely rare within the region. The Victoria History of the County of Durham (1905), states that the last capture of one in that county was in 1882 near Bishop Auckland (Hoppyland). Millais (1905) records the trapping of a Pine Marten at Bardon Mill in 1905 as the last Northumberland record, and Milburn (1900) records a marten killed near Swainby on the edge of the Cleveland Hills in March 1900. Yalden (1999) states that by 1915 the Pine Marten was thought to survive in England, only in the Lake District, perhaps the Cheviot Hills and parts of Yorkshire.

Despite a status of being functionally extinct, sporadic anecdotal reports have continued of Pine Martens in the region throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, many of which, in recent years, have been catalogued and evaluated by the Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT). Henry Tegner (1972) provides a good introduction to modern records with his account of the finding of a dead marten at Elishaw Bridge in north Northumberland in 1969, the skull of which was identified as a Pine Marten by the British Museum of Natural History and the sighting of a Pine Marten in Hamsterley Forest, Durham by “two independent and entirely responsible observers” in 1970. The Elishaw skull was deposited with the Hancock Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. Simms (1973), the finder of the Elishaw corpse, concluded from the pelage colour that the marten was most probably of North American origin Martes americana; in his opinion, like the Mink Neovison vison, an escapee from fur farms. In 1993 a marten skull was recovered from a gamekeeper kill near Ingleby Greenhow in the Cleveland Hills (Jefferies and Critchley, 1994) and in 1994 Terry Coult was shown the corpse of a marten reported to have been shot in Hareshaw Linn, Bellingham, looking like a typical Scottish marten. The most recent record of a North East marten was in 2010 from Kidland Forest in the Cheviots, with scat collected by Kevin O’Hara from a marten den box.

Pine marten small

DNA analysis of biological material including scats (faeces) can determine the genetic origin of a marten (described as its mitochondrial haplotype) and therefore its likely geographical pedigree. The VWT has organised scat collection searches in places where martens have been sighted across England and Wales, as well as the testing of preserved specimens.

Jordan et al. (2012) discuss the genetic history of martens from the British Isles using DNA analysis results; their findings suggest that the aboriginal English Pine Marten, haplotype i, appears no longer to be present in England, becoming extinct after 1924, but it is still weakly represented in Scotland along with the much more abundant haplotype a Pine Marten which makes up the bulk of the existing and historical Scottish marten population.

The haplotypes of marten specimens collected in Northumberland and Cleveland show origins in Scotland (haplotype a) and in North America (haplotypes w and x), suggesting that all are displaced animals, not the remains of an indigenous English population (Table 1).

Table 1. Confirmed Marten records from Northumberland and Cleveland with their haplotype.

County Year Haplotype Record type Recorder
Northumberland 1990s W Carcass Colin Simms
Northumberland 1990 X Carcass Colin Simms
Cleveland Hills,North Yorks. 1993 A Carcass Charles Critchley
Northumberland 1994 A Carcass Colin Simms
Northumberland 1995 A Carcass Colin Simms
Northumberland 2010 A Scat Kevin O’Hara

The origin of these North East martens is puzzling: are they releases, escapees, or travellers from Dumfries and Galloway, the closest known Scottish population, or a combination of all. Jordan et al. (2012) record that Scottish martens were released near Peebles by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2009, which is only 70 km away from the Kidland scat.

American martens and European martens are very closely related to the extent that they can interbreed and the presence of individual martens with mixed American and Scottish genetic material suggests a fur- farm input, and there were fur farms in Northumberland which bred martens.

Current understanding is therefore that there is a confirmed marten presence in Northumberland with animals of Scottish and Scottish x American descent, and a single marten carcass from the Cleveland Hills of Scottish descent; whether this represents a self sustaining population or sporadic incursion is unknown. There is no physical evidence from County Durham, but like Northumberland and Cleveland there are many anecdotal records of sightings of martens. Birks and Messenger (2010) record 20th-century sightings suggesting breeding martens in both Northumberland and Durham.

The paucity of material for analysis advises caution in drawing hard and fast conclusions on the status of North East and English martens and there is a need for much more study before a full understanding of their status is achieved.

References

Written by Terry Coult and Kevin O’Hara (last updated Nov 2012)