Persecuted pine marten may return to England

Andrew Buncombe
Saturday 09 September 2000 00:00 BST

Prized for their fur by medieval royalty, despised by Victorian gamekeepers, the rare and elusive pine marten may be set for a comeback.

Prized for their fur by medieval royalty, despised by Victorian gamekeepers, the rare and elusive pine marten may be set for a comeback.

By the early 1900s the shy, largely nocturnal hunter had been trapped almost to extinction and pushed to a last refuge in the north of Scotland. But it could be returned to habitats in England and Wales, a wildlife charity said yesterday. A report by the People's Trust for Endangered Species and English Nature said changes in both the environment and the law could give the pine marten a chance of being reintroduced.

The report, based on research by Royal Holloway College, University of London, says: "As there is now more woodland, and pine martens are protected, there is no reason why they could not be reintroduced to the English countryside."

The research by Dr Paul Bright surveyed six woodland areas in Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Avon, East Sussex and Cumbria. The researchers polled local people, including farmers and gamekeepers, on attitudes towards the animal, which is often blamed for killing game birds. They found most were in favour of reintroduction.

Dr Bright said: "Reintroduction of species such as the red kite shows what can be done to help pine martens. Conservation efforts for such a rare species are long overdue."

The pine marten, a member of the mustelid group of mammals, which includes otters and badgers, is a shy creature. Each can have a "territory" of 40 square kilometres.

Records from the 1800s show that pine martens were then spread widely across England and Wales. By 1850 they had become scarce in large parts of southern England but were common in Sussex, Devon and Cornwall. By the outbreak of the First World War the animal was virtually extinct in England and Wales. Even in Scotland they had been pushed to the far north-west because of their persecution by gamekeepers.

The report says that the number of gamekeepers has greatly declined, and the pine marten has slowly recovered in Scotland. But there has been no recovery in England and Wales.

The plan by English Nature and the trust would involve taking about 30 animals from Scotland from areas where they are relatively numerous, allowing them to acclimatise to their new surroundings in pre-release cages, and then releasing them into woodlands. The progress of each animal would be monitored by fitting them with radio collars.

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