THE PINE MARTEN Martes martes

 

Recognition:

Dark brown fur; yellow/white throat patch; long fluffy tail.
Head/body length: males 51-54cm; females 46-54cm;
Tail length: males 26-27cm; females 18-24cm. Weight: males 1.5-2.2kg; females 0.9-1.5kg.

General Ecology:

Pine martens are found in the Scottish Highlands and Grampian, with isolated populations in southern Scotland. In England and North Wales pine martens are probably on the verge of extinction although there may still be isolated individuals present in Northumberland and North Yorkshire.

Although they occur in a wide range of habitats, pine martens prefer well-wooded areas with plenty of cover. Marten dens are commonly found in hollow trees or the fallen root masses of Scots pines, an association that probably earned pine martens their name; cairns and cliffs covered with scrub are frequently used as alternative den sites.

Martens have a very varied diet, which changes with the seasonal availability of different foods. Small rodents are a very important food, but birds, beetles, carrion, eggs and fungi are also eaten. In autumn, berries are a staple part of the diet. Martens mostly hunt on the ground, although they are superb climbers and can climb with great agility.

Martens have territories that vary in size according to habitat and food availability. For males these are about 10-25 square kilometres and for females about 5-15 square kilometres. Martens mark their territories with faeces (known as scats) deposited in places where they are conspicuous to other martens; they are frequently left along forestry trails.

Young martens are born blind and hairless, in litters of 1-5, in early spring and stay with their mothers for about six weeks. Their eyes open at the end of May and by mid-June they begin to emerge from their den. Male martens play no direct part in rearing the young. Pine martens have lived up to 17 years in captivity, but in the wild most probably die before they are eight years old.

Conservation:

Martens and their dens are fully protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and must not be trapped, sold or disturbed except under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage, the Countryside Council for Wales or English Nature. Despite this legal protection, poisoned baits and traps, often set for hooded crows and foxes, still probably account for many marten deaths each year. Others are also shot at hen houses, and some are killed when mistaken for mink.

Until the 19th Century, pine martens were found throughout much of mainland Britain, the Isle of Wight and some of the Scottish islands. Habitat fragmentation, persecution by gamekeepers and martens being killed for their fur, drastically reduced this distribution. By 1926, the main pine marten population in Britain was restricted to a small area of north-west Scotland. Martens are now increasing their range in Scotland, but it is not known whether their populations in England and Wales are expanding, or even if they still exist.

Prime habitats for pine martens seem to be well wooded areas, with high densities of voles that are their principal prey. Female pine martens with young are extremely sensitive to human disturbance, which can cause a female to move her young from a den or even eat them.

Increased forestry and enlightened estate management are likely to help pine martens recolonise their former haunts in the future. In areas where pine martens currently occur, practical management methods may also assist survival. Important measures that can be taken are planting connections between suitable habitats to prevent further fragmentation; creation and maintenance of cover particularly along streams, to provide travel routes and shelter and management of habitats for voles and other food items.

Reintroductions of martens to England have been suggested but a greater understanding of martens is needed before these should be attempted. More detailed studies of the distribution and numbers of the populations in northern England and Wales and the reasons for their apparent recent decline are required.

Frequent Questions:

Martens are killing my hens, what can I do?
Make the house more secure. Female martens have no difficulty gaining access through holes just 5cm (2 inches) across. Any attempt to remove a marten, besides being illegal, would probably just result in another marten taking its place.

Do martens prey on red squirrels?
Squirrels are the main mammal in the diet of some martens in Finland and Sweden. In Scotland, however, squirrels rarely feature in the marten's diet.

Further information: