The First Sighting of This Small Carnivore in a Century Is a Big Deal

The pine marten could be making a return to England, and that’s good news for the ecosystem.

Pine marten spotted near the northern England border. (Photo: Courtesy Shropshire Wildlife Trust)

Jul 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

For the first time in a century, a pine marten has been spotted in England, roaming the forested hillsides of Shropshire along the country’s border with Wales.

The cat-size member of the mustelid family (which includes mink and weasels) was photographed by amateur wildlife enthusiast David Pearce, who sent the photos to the Shropshire Wildlife Trust last week. There, Stuart Edmunds, the trust’s communications officer and an avid pine marten searcher, verified the discovery.

Though native to England, pine martens have been extinct in the country since 1915, mostly owing to forest clearing (they like heavy tree cover), fur trappers, and systematic eradication (farmers and landowners saw them as varmints). Still, pine martens are thriving in Scotland, where 4,000 are estimated to roam, and a smaller population persists in Wales, where the Shropshire marten is thought to have originated.

So, Why Should You Care? While pine martens are common in much of Europe, the animals’ disappearance from England has left a hole in the country’s ecosystem, and American gray squirrels have filled it. The nonnative rodents have taken over much of the territory of Britain’s native red squirrels. They also destroy young trees, hindering the establishment of new forests.

In Ireland, where some 2,700 pine martens reside under legal protections, gray squirrel populations have crashed wherever pine martens have expanded. At the same time, red squirrel numbers have risen in areas once dominated by gray squirrels. The reason? Gray squirrels are a bit slower and heavier than their red counterparts, and that makes them easier meals for pine martens.

Edmunds, who runs the Wildlife Trust’s Shropshire Pine Marten project, has been on the hunt for a true sighting of the animal for the past five years. He’s investigated multiple supposed pine marten sightings, but they’ve all turned out be cases of mistaken identity—cats, mink, and even squirrels—or unverifiable.

“Many people have questioned my sanity for a while now for dedicating so much of my time investigating sightings,” Edmunds said. “Although two other photos [of pine martens] have been taken in the last decade, those cases were thought to be photos of pine martens that escaped wildlife parks/sanctuaries. It is likely that this marten is completely wild, so this is a very important record.”

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It’s important because it shows that England can once again provide habitat for the pine marten, which is thought to have once been the second-most-common carnivore in the country.

Edmunds hopes this most recent sighting will rekindle interest among conservationists in restoring the species in England. Early plans have looked at capturing martens from Scotland for rerelease in potential pine marten habitat sites in England and Wales.