Comeback plans for extinct pine marten

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The Independent Online
Ecologists are preparing the way for the first reintroduction of a carnivore into England. The pine marten, also known as the tree weasel, is believed to have died out in England and Wales where it was common less than 200 years ago.

The small nocturnal creatures were killed off by hunters for their expensive fur coats, or by gamekeepers who saw them as a threat to gamebirds.

A two-year study, funded by English Nature, has identified four sites in England where the biological conditions are suitable for colonies of pine martens to be re-established.

Reintroduction could be controversial because of the potential threat of a new carnivore to the conservation of rare birds and to game-rearing.

The leader of the research team, Dr Paul Bright, an ecology lecturer at Royal Holloway, London University, stressed that no re-introduction would take place until a final assessment had been made of the pine martens' likely impact on other animals.

English Nature and the People's Trust for Endangered Species, which also sponsored the research, are to undertake a consultation process with the Game Conservancy Trust and other interested parties about the likely effect of returning pine martens to England.

The research team has been encouraged by its assessment of a previous reintroduction of pine martens carried out in Scotland during 1980 and 1981. A batch of six surviving animals has evolved into a colony of 35 martens within an eight-mile radius of Glen Trool in Galloway, where they were first settled.

Dr Bright would like to take some of the Scottish pine martens to England where the biological conditions - such as the availability of food in the form of voles and rabbits - are even better in some sites than in Galloway.

The location which has most impressed the English Nature team is at Kielder, in Northumberland, where there is a large coniferous forest close to the North Tyne.

Kielder is also regarded as a safe location for the animals because of the low risk of them meeting a violent death from roads or animal traps.

The other three English sites which are under consideration are the Forest of Dean, the woodlands to the south and east of Dartmoor and in the Weald at Heathfield, East Sussex.

If the pine marten were to be resettled it would be the first time a carnivore which had ceased to exist in England had been reintroduced.

The nearest comparable exercise was the reintroduction of otters in East Anglia, although they continued to survive in other parts of England.

Pine martens (Martes martes) are close cousins of otters, badgers and polecats. They spend most of the day in their lairs in hollow trees, rock fissures or disused birds' nests.