One of Britain’s rarest animals returns to Forest of Dean

Once a familiar feature of the woodlands in England, the pine marten stood on the brink of extinction – until now – following the successful release of 18 pine mine martens into the Forest of Dean.

Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, together with Forestry England, Vincent Wildlife Trust and Forest Research have just reached a major milestone in a project to bring the pine marten back home and successfully establish a source population to support the recovery of pine martens in England.

From the same family as otters and weasels, pine martens were once common among British wildlife. Similar in size to a domestic cat, with slim bodies, brown fur and a distinctive cream ‘bib’ on their throats, they have long, bushy tails and prominent rounded ears.

Extensive hunting, however, together with the loss of the woodlands pine martens once called home, resulted in near extinction in England. Historically, they were pushed to the more remote parts of the UK, becoming Britain’s second-rarest native carnivore. Eventually, their only remaining stronghold was in the North-West Highlands of Scotland, but now things are looking up for the pine marten.

“We are delighted to be involved with the return of the pine marten, a charming, but highly elusive mammal that was once widespread throughout England,” said Rebecca Wilson, Forestry England’s Planning and Environment Manager in West England.

“As native omnivores, pine martens play a vital role in the delicate balance of woodland ecosystems. Living at low densities in the landscape, they forage on fruit, fungi and a range of prey, including the grey squirrel, a non-native species that is having a detrimental impact on broadleaf woodland throughout England.

“We are looking forward to working with volunteers, local communities and partner organisations to monitor how the pine martens are moving throughout the Forest of Dean and the wider landscape.”

The 2020 Biodiversity Strategy for England identified the need to recover threatened species and habitats across the country. Similarly in 2018, The government’s 25-year Environment Plan stated that the reintroduction of native species like otters and polecats was key to nature’s recovery.

Vincent Wildlife Trust, a national conservation charity that focuses on British and Irish mammals, has for the past 20 years highlighted the decline of pine martens in England and Wales. In a bid to safeguard the future of this charismatic creature, the organisation was able to move 51 pine martens from Scotland to Wales between 2015–2017, where they now have an established population.

During this time, the Forest of Dean was identified as another potential location to reintroduce the pine marten. Between August and September this year, 18 pine martens were moved from Scotland to Gloucestershire, fitted with tracking collars and released into the forest.

Under the watchful eye of Dr Catherine McNicol, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Project Manager, the pine martens’ activity will be closely monitored.

“Pine martens are elusive and shy animals, with their presence often only indicated by scats in the middle of forestry tracks. They only give birth to a few kits each year if breeding is even successful, so the rate of marten population recovery in the UK is low. It is hoped that their protection, alongside these reintroductions, will give them the boost they need to become resilient and thrive,” commented Dr McNicol.

Dr Gareth Parry, Director of Conservation at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, added: “We are in a biodiversity emergency and conserving our remaining wildlife is not enough, we must also take action to support nature’s recovery. We’re working with partners to establish a Nature Recovery Network across the county and bringing back native species, such as pine marten, which play a vital role in ecosystem functioning, is an important part of this work.”

The hope is that over the next two years, more pine martens will be released into the forest and that a population will establish there. This population will then spread and link up with the recently reintroduced Welsh pine martens, creating a new stronghold for the species and ensuring its survival.

Members of the public are unlikely to spot these solitary mammals, which have exclusive territories and go out of the way to avoid each other, and people.

The future looks bright for this species as they are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This, combined with the support from the people of the Forest of Dean, and wider Gloucestershire, will ensure that the pine marten can come back to its native home for good, paving the way towards healthier woodlands and adding to the wildlife diversity of the county, and the wider country.

The project has been made possible by Forest Holidays, and supported by the Woodland Trust. Further information on the project can be found at www.gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk

Image credit: Terry Whittaker/2020 VISION