The possible return of pine martens to the Forest of Dean represents an important and exciting step in the conservation of woodland.
Against a tide of global species extinctions, the re-establishment of a native woodland carnivore offers the opportunity to work with nature to bring back a lost element of the ecosystem.
Persecution and extinction
Pine martens were once common throughout Britain. Yet a combination of loss of habitat and persecution meant that by the early 20th-century pine martens were extinct from most of southern Britain and were found only in north-west Scotland, and parts of northern England. In Wales a few animals struggled on in Snowdonia and the Cambrian mountains, but the population was too small to expand and was vulnerable to disappearance.
Missing woodland specialist
Pine martens are related to stoats, weasels, polecats and otters but are a woodland specialist and an important woodland carnivore. In addition to small mammals, fruit, birds, eggs, insects and carrion, pine marten prey on grey squirrels. The effect on the non-native grey squirrel has benefits for a range of trees, which they damage, and other animal species including the red squirrels. In addition to outcompeting red squirrels for habitat space, grey squirrels are carriers
Grey squirrels not only outcompete red squirrels for habitat space they're also carriers for the squirrel pox virus which kills red squirrels while leaving the greys unharmed. In Ireland where pine marten populations have expanded there has been a recovery of red squirrels.
Supporting critical research in Wales
We are supporting research being undertaken by Vincent Wildlife Trust on the impact on grey squirrels of pine marten reintroductions in Wales. The research is also looking at the ways in which pine marten disperse from their points of release, better helping us to understand the habitat needs of this and other woodland species.
Feasibility study for reintroduction to England
Following the success of the Wales reintroductions Gloucester Wildlife Trust, together with Vincent Wildlife Trust and the Forestry Commission are hoping to reintroduce the species into the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. We are supporting work on the feasibility study which will assess the potential costs and benefits of a pine marten reintroduction and look at things such as habitat suitability, impacts on other species and the likelihood of road traffic kills affecting reintroduction success, as well as any concerns of local communities.
Pine martens in our woods
We have a number of woods in the area, so in addition to wanting to see the return of a native woodland species, we have a direct interest in the proposals.
If the feasibility study provides the necessary reassurances for reintroductions, then in 2018 it may be possible to relocate animals from healthy populations in Scotland. In addition to the feasibility study identifying important conservation issues, our woods could also form part of monitoring following release. This would include using camera traps to identifying where the animals disperse and their general health, as well as changes to the levels of damage to trees caused by grey squirrels and impacts on other wildlife.
Too often nature conservation is about fighting battles to save things from being lost. The chance to restore a species once extinct and possibly recover other native species through this work is an exciting opportunity.
Look out for news of the feasibility study and future plans for reintroduction over the coming months, and follow the progress of the programme already in place in mid Wales.