A Wild Fugitive Returns to Shropshire
A Wild Fugitive Returns
by Paul Evans
One summer evening last year I thought I saw a pine marten on Wenlock Edge: a chocolate brown, weasley outlaw in the shadows. There had been rumours of their return for a while and although I couldn’t prove my sighting I had feeling they were about.
The pine marten, one of Britain’s rarest and most elusive mammals, is back; in fact it never went away. A few years ago, a report revealed pine martens were not confined to parts of Scotland and Wales and extinct elsewhere in England as was assumed, they had been living a secret life under our noses for decades.
Pine martens are related to weasels and otters, they are agile, inquisitive and about the size of a large ferret or small cat. With their deep chestnut fur and yellow bib they are one of Britain’s prettiest mammals. The attitude contained in that 80cm between beady black nose and bushy tail tip makes them supreme forest predators. They hunt voles, rabbits, hares, squirrels, birds and their eggs and also eat honey, nuts, fruit and fungi.
The beautiful fur made their pelts valuable and their killer instinct, particularly when it came to pheasants and partridges, made them enemies of gamekeepers. Pine martens were persecuted to extinction in most parts of Britain but, even with full legal protection in 1988, only small enclaves hung on in remote parts of northern Scotland, North Wales and maybe Cumbria. Or so it was thought.
A few years ago, a Vincent Wildlife Trust report based on 12 years of research and sightings, revealed a surprise: pine martins were still present in broadly the same parts of England and Wales from which they were recorded in the past. This included areas such as Carmarthenshire, Montgomery, North York Moors and the Cheviots but also odd sightings in Cambridge, East Sussex and Northampton. In 2010, conservationists were ecstatic to report the finding of pine marten scat (poo) in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland. After 50 reported sightings there since the mid 90s this casual defecation was described as the ‘holy grail’ for those searching for the elusive martens of England. An extensive search was organised from Northumberland to Cumbria but the martens remained elusive.
This was beginning to sound like the big cat stories: how did such a large animal, even a nocturnal, arboreal one, pass unnoticed for so long? According to the VWT report’s author, pine marten expert Johnny Birks, “Not everybody overlooked the pine martens. Some dedicated naturalists, who had been watching them for many years, kept hope burning that the species’ presence would be recognised. The trouble is the ‘authorities’ are used to cheap and easy survey methods which don’t work on something as elusive and scarce as pine martens and the wrong perception has arisen that there were none left.”
From 1996 to 2007, researchers analysed records, talked to people with convincing sightings, collected roadkill and tested the DNA of scat, slowly piecing together a picture of a creature so elusive, few believed it existed at all and taking comfort from the astrophysicists’ mantra: “an absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence.”
English sightings have been dismissed as cats, polecats, mink or even black squirrels. Others have been explained as escapees from wildlife centres. This annoys people who are perfectly capable of identifying a pine marten when they see one and confuses people like me who think they might have seen one, really want to have seen one, but don’t trust themselves. For pine martens to pass from legend required proof. And there were people looking for it.
This tells us how important the observations of amateur naturalists are. “There are cultural changes towards instant results,” says Birks, “and fewer people dedicated to plugging away, building up their skills hoping to strike it lucky in pursuit of rare animals. These sorts of naturalists are as rare as the animals themselves.” Then, last week, amateur photographer and naturalist Dave Pearce struck lucky.
Birding in the Shropshire Hills, Pearce saw a pine marten running through the wood and sent two photographs of it to the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. Stuart Edmunds, who lead the pine marten project for SWT for the last five years following up sightings, was thrilled that at last there was photographic evidence of a pine marten in Shropshire. He spent the weekend checking Pearce’s location details, matching moss and twig patterns in the photo against the actual site of the recording. This meticulous verification was accepted by the Vincent Wildlife Trust as scientifically valid. “This is incredibly exciting,” said Edmunds. “Pine martens were thought to be extinct in England and there is now a possibility that they may have been living here right under our noses for a long time”.
Pine martens can easily travel 20km in a day, they are highly territorial, with bigger ones pushing out younger, smaller ones to find new territories of their own it is very likely the Shropshire marten came from Wales. Like the polecat, buzzard and raven, the presence of pine martens in England is not thought to depend on escapes or reintroductions but it seems the tenacious predators have been hanging on despite us. “They tell us about a species’ resilience to tick over until conditions improve,” says Birks, “with fewer killed and more woodland planned as we move towards a carbon neutral policy, there is hope and optimism the pine martins can keep going.”
The presence of pine martens is certainly something to celebrate and there are movements afoot to reintroduce them to many parts of Britain where they were thought to have been persecuted to extinction. But maybe the Shropshire marten suggests leaving the animals to find their own way back may be a better policy than kidnapping them from the wild and releasing them into territories they have no connection with and may well be existing territories of pine martens that have not been discovered yet.
The future of these charming, graceful yet deadly fugitives with great intelligence depends on how we sort out woodland and what wild animals mean to us. They are further encouragement to create new woodland, protect old ones, particularly old trees with breeding holes in them and champion greater connectivity between woodlands so pine martins can stay away from predatory foxes and regain their rightful place in the trees. They are also totem animals which haunt our history and hunt through our imaginations.
Even though they may have been hiding in the shadows for years, we now have proof for the first time in 100 years that pine martens are back in Shropshire, back in England. This means something more than a good news wildlife story. It’s the return from exile of a spirit of resistance, like the Shropshire folklore fugitive Wild Edric. A Saxon rebel with lands around where I live, Wild Edric the Savage fought against the Normans, with Welsh allies, and in legend he appears in the Shropshire Hills at moments of great crisis to rally the people. The pine marten is also a symbolic figure of resistance against forces ranged against Nature and the human spirit. The presence of the pine marten says that even when things seem really bad, there is a wild hope to hang on to, to inspire us.
Guardian article Pine Martin Spotted In England For The First Time In Over 100 years
For further pine martin information:
Vincent Wildlife Trust: www.vwt.org.uk
Mammal Trust: www.mammal.org.uk
Stuart Edmunds is keen to hear of other possible pine marten sightings in Shropshire, send info to him directly at email@example.com or via
For further information please contact Stuart Edmunds 01743 284277 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Web Page: www.paulevanswenlockedge.com
©Paul Evans 3 June 2015
Photographs: by kind permission of Shropshire Wildlife Trust