Seldom seen, the pine marten is a furred woodland dweller that likes to make its moves by night. It was pushed to the brink of UK extinction in the past through human persecution and loss of habitat, and is now making a gradual comeback.
The pine marten is a native British mammal and a member of the mustelid family, which includes otter, stoat, weasel, badger and polecat. The size of a domestic cat the pine marten is distinguished by its rich brown fur, a creamy-yellow chest ‘bib’, prominent rounded ears and a long bushy tail.
Pine martens favour woodland habitats and prefer to use tree cavities as breeding and resting sites. In some parts of Scotland, the apparent shortage of such secure natural den sites may partly explain why martens sometimes use houses and other buildings for shelter and breeding.
In continental Europe where there are two species of marten, pine martens are rarely encountered using houses, whereas the related stone (or beech) marten does use them and is much more associated with human habitation than its relative. Pine martens prefer old growth forest with large mature trees, some of which have sizeable cavities created by the large black woodpecker, a species that is absent from Britain.
It has been suggested that the scarcity of den sites in trees in Scotland is due to the limited extent of old growth forest and the absence of black woodpeckers. This, combined with the moist climate, has encouraged pine martens to use buildings more in this country. SNH and the Vincent Wildlife Trust have recently published a free booklet on pine martens in houses giving advice on what can be done in these situations.
Pine martens are largely nocturnal but are frequently active during the day, especially in the summer months. They were once widespread throughout Britain but populations suffered a dramatic decline during the 19th century as a result of persecution and deforestation. By the early 20th century, the pine marten had become extinct across most of Britain and the Scottish population was restricted to the north-west Highlands.
Despite being classified as carnivores, martens are highly opportunistic animals with a varied diet which includes small mammals (mainly voles), fruit (notably rowan berries and blaeberries), small birds, insects and carrion. As predators, pine martens are a vital part of a healthy ecosystem.
Populations began to recover in Scotland since the introduction of legal protection and pine martens have slowly re-colonised many parts of their former range, with the core population now occurring as far south as the Central Belt. A pine marten population is also established in south-west Scotland, following a reintroduction in the 1980s, and pine martens also occur in parts of the Scottish borders.
Martens are thinly spread, even in forest areas that are prime sites for them. Their territories can be very large, and for much of the year individual martens are often quite solitary. Add nocturnal habits, and you have a recipe for one very elusive animal.
The most obvious signs of marten presence are coiled, cylindrical droppings a few centimetres long on tracks, rocks or fallen trees. Especially in late summer and autumn, these can be stuffed with bright orange-red rowan berries or the shiny wing cases of dung beetles.
To see the real ‘McMarten’, best bet is to go on an organised watch with a wildlife tour operator or estate. Then you might be lucky enough to see this dark-chocolate-and-cream coated creature up close.
Current Scottish hotspots are pinewoods flanking mountains on the northwest mainland, including the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve; much of the Great Glen, Morvern and Ardnamurchan; glens from west of Loch Ness east to around the Monadhliath; and the Cairngorms.
Weight for weight, the fur of the northern world’s martens is one of the most effective heat retainers you could find. In the Middle Ages, marten fur was a valuable item of Scottish export, with records in the 1300s of an export duty of four pence per ‘timmer’ (30 skins of creatures such as martens, polecats and stoats in ermine) in the reign of King David II.
By the mid-15th century, marten fur may have already become a scarce commodity. In 1457, the Scottish Parliament banned low-ranking officials, their wives and daughters from wearing ‘furrings of mertricks’ [martens] except at holiday times. In other words, marten fur was so prized, it was a badge of social status.
In terms of modern cultural references these are arguably easiest found beyond Scotland’s shores. The Croatian currency has reference to martens with the main unit of currency – the kuna – also being the name for the marten, the pelt of which was an early trading unit. In the highly-acclaimed novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin a pine marten features, although interestingly the author Louis de Berniere didn’t quite get things right as pine martens are not present on Kefalonia, rather it is the stone marten that can be found there.
Further information on pine martens on the SNH website @ http://www.snh.gov.uk/about-scotlands-nature/species/mammals/land-mammals/pine-martens/
The Vincent Wildlife Trust and SNH have produced a ‘Living with pine martens booklet’ which you can read online @ see http://www.vwt.org.uk/docs/pine-marten/scotland-pine-marten-leaflet.pdf?sfvrsn=4
The SNH app – Scotland’s Nature – includes a section on the salmon. Scotland’s Nature app is compatible with Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch and can be downloaded from the iTunes App Store
For fun: see a professional football match in the Swiss League between FC Thun and Zurich being interrupted when pine marten invades the pitch and bites one of the players @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmOc5n2QQlg
SNH press releases regarding pine martens
South of Scotland expansion @ http://www.snh.gov.uk/news-and-events/press-releases/press-release-details/?id=1005
Pine martens on Mull @ http://www.snh.gov.uk/news-and-events/press-releases/press-release-details/?id=992
Images 1 and 3 by Terry Whittaker/2020VISION , Image 2 by Mark Hamblin/2020Vision,