Nature Studies: Could we one day see pine martens in the woods of southern England?

With its sinuous, long-tailed elegance, Martes martes is ravishingly attractive

Share

The radical idea that we should bring back to Britain the large carnivores we long ago wiped out – lynx, wolf, even brown bear – is increasingly being discussed as part of the topic of “rewilding” the impoverished natural world of our country; and it is provoking a fair amount of heated debate. Just a fortnight ago, Paul Lister, the multimillionaire heir to the MFI furniture fortune, told The Independent that he wanted to bring back all three – yep, bears included – to his large private estate in the wilds of northern Scotland.

How realistic such a scheme may be is a moot point. But, with hardly anyone noticing, a project has just got under way which is entirely realistic, and may well see another missing carnivore brought back; not to the Highlands, where the lynx et al might one day roam, but to Wales and England, and even to the gentler landscapes of the south, such as the New Forest.

The carnivore in question is the pine marten, the larger, tree-dwelling relative of the stoat and the weasel (a mustelid, to be technical). With its sinuous, long-tailed elegance and its cream-coloured throat contrasting with the rest of its chocolate-brown body fur, it is a ravishingly attractive mammal, and pine marten tourism, watching the beastie from a hide, is a growing attraction in parts of Scotland, such as Speyside, where it is flourishing.

Once, pine martens were found all over Britain, but in the 18th and 19th centuries they were largely wiped out because of the rise of the great shooting estates: gamekeepers killed them anywhere and everywhere that they found them, and by the start of the 20th century they were extinct in most of England and Wales and even in much of Scotland. By World War II, they existed only as a relict population north and west of Loch Ness.

Since then, however, Martes martes has spread back across the Highlands and is even found in Scotland’s south, in the forests of Galloway, where it was reintroduced in 1981. And a growing number of conservationists are asking: why not bring it all the way south, back to Wales and even to southern England, where once it may have lived in every patch of wood?

They are led by the Vincent Wildlife Trust, the estimable, small charity which concerns itself with the fate of Britain’s rare mammals. For more than a decade, the VWT has led the way in trying to pin down scanty reports of pine martens still existing elusively in the remoter parts of Wales and Northern England; and what they have proved is that while there are indeed animals remaining in the Principality, and in parts of the north of England, the numbers are so tiny that they are “functionally extinct” and unlikely to start recovering again.  So, three weeks ago, the Trust announced a formal, two-year study into the possibility of reintroducing pine martens south of the border.

The study will try to identify areas with suitable habitat and suitable food availability where animals might be released from populations in Scotland, and from Ireland, too, where they are also doing well. If the trial succeeds, a reintroduction plan would be put forward. The key point about this study is that it has official backing: on its steering group are representatives of all the main Government conservation bodies and it is enthusiastically supported by Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, and the Forestry Commission, as well as other wildlife charities.

Less keen on the idea are people who like to shoot game birds, some of which the reintroduced animals might consume. “Pine martens are carnivores and do eat things, and some people aren’t very happy about that,” said Lizzie Croose, the Trust’s project officer. “So we will be working closely with the game shooting lobby, and bird conservation groups as well.”  Wisely, the Trust has included the British Association for Shooting and Conservation on the study steering group.

My own view is that the loss to pine martens of just a few of the 35 million pheasant poults released in the British countryside to be shot every year, would be a microscopic price to pay for the return of such a charismatic mammal. And while we’re on the subject of the clash between shooting interests and natural predators, I said in this column last week, while writing about the newly published Bird Atlas of Britain and Ireland, that the buzzard and the raven have spread back over Eastern England because “persecution has ended.”

That might imply that persecution of avian predators by gamekeepers has stopped all over Britain. It might have lessened in some parts of England, but on the upland shooting estates of the North and in Scotland it is still rife. Last year, the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee disclosed that between 2002 and 2011 there were 633 confirmed bird of prey poisoning incidents in the UK, with species killed ranging from golden eagles and white-tailed eagles to peregrine falcons; I am only too happy to point that out.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Interface Developer - HTML, CSS, JS

£17000 - £23750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Liverpool based international...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness