‘Faunal Nationalism’ and the Revival of English Pine Martens
Guest post by: Olivier Jumeau, Geography student at Thompson Rivers University, BC
The European pine marten (Martes martes) is a carnivorous mammal indigenous to the British archipelago. Part of the mustelid classification of mammals, the pine marten was long believed to be extinct in the forests of England, with centuries of habitat destruction and historic persecution for their fur resulting in the last remaining viable populations being restricted to areas of northern Scotland and central Wales. In 2010 however, scat found at Kidland Forest in Northumberland, close to the Scottish border, indicated that a small number of pine martens had migrated south and into the forests of northern England. This relocation was confirmed the following year, when in 2011 DNA testing of scat found in Cumbria, another north-English county, established that European pine martens were indeed present in the area. It wasn’t for another four years however, before an actual sighting of an English pine marten was recorded: an amateur photographer capturing images of a wild pine marten in Shropshire in 2015. Since then, numerous sightings of English pine martens have been reported and confirmed by camera traps across the northern counties. After concentrated reintroduction efforts in mid-Wales, where the tireless work of the Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT) has resulted in a sustainable Welsh pine marten population, work is now being done to replicate a similarly sustainable population in England, where current populations are fragmented and discontinuous.
For the non-British reader, it may come as a surprise to hear that the positive public attitude towards the reintroduction of pine martens is heavily linked to their predator-prey relationship with the American grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), and consequently, the potential of pine martens to support populations of the endangered and native Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). Ever since grey squirrels were introduced to the British isles, their larger size and greater ability to store fat means they have outcompeted native red squirrels for winter reserves for the better part of 150 years. What’s more, grey squirrels also carry the squirrelpox virus, to which the indigenous red squirrels have no immunity.
Combined, the widespread increase of grey squirrels, alongside the startling decline in the number of pine martens over the same period, resulted in the British red squirrel population dwindling on the brink of extinction for the entirety of the 20th century. Fascinatingly however, and a poignant nod to the importance and shear intricacy of indigenous ecological biodiversity, non native grey squirrels are vastly more susceptible to being preyed on by the carnivorous pine marten. As for why exactly this is, a number of factors are at play. The first, and as explained by Connor McMillan of the New Forest Wildlife Park in Southampton, grey squirrels are intrinsically unable to detect and register the pine marten scent as one of a predator, thus enabling a stalking marten to get close enough to pounce. The red squirrels meanwhile, naturally associate the scent of the marten as one of immediate threat. Secondly, the smaller red’s – although weaker and less fit than their grey cousins – are more agile and are able to evade the pursuit of a pine marten much better than grey squirrels. Although pine martens attempt and are successful at hunting red squirrels, the red’s prove much harder to catch and the process requires much more energy for the marten, for less reward. Crucially, this ability of the pine marten to re-balance the ecosystems of English woodlands are beginning to reflect in public perception.
A 2018 Forest Research survey of 265 people from both urban and rural areas indicated that 71% were in support of pine marten reintroduction in England, with 32% valuing their positive impact on red squirrel populations. This marks a significant increase from the 3% of respondents who valued the role of pine martens as suppressors of grey squirrels from a similar survey in 2014. This sharp increase in the public awareness of the role that pine martens play within the regional indigenous ecosystem is highly promising. It is indicative of a greater public awareness of the complexities of native ecosystems and bodes well for the future of English faunal re-wilding. As support for the ecological reintroduction of indigenous apex predators continues to grow – such as for the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and Eurasian wolf (Canis lupus lupus), both of which were widespread across the British Isles prior to human-caused extinction – the indication that members of the public are beginning to formulate their opinion based on ecological relationships and scientific research, rather than non-ecological rhetoric, is exciting conservationists across the country.
As pine marten numbers across the UK begin to grow, thanks to targeted conservation efforts, and Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) continue to reclaim the forests of both Scotland and England after an absence of 400 years, it is difficult to ignore the growing re-wilding movement occurring within the UK. As seen with the reintroduction of beavers however, the introduction of a species – native or not – inevitably creates ecological change alongside new human-animal conflicts, especially given the amount at which the landscape of Britain has changed since the last time these species existed. For beavers, these conflicts – in particular with farmers – have resulted in the illegal culling of pregnant females. For pine martens, conflicts between humans stem from their excellent climbing ability and their capacity to fit through small spaces, enabling them access to poultry pens. Further, a lack of natural denning sites means that pine martens in contemporary Britain frequently make dens in the roofs of rural properties, causing structural damage as the female enlarges her den. In the 2018 Forest Research survey, pine martens as a threat to poultry farmers (8.4%), game keepers (2.6%) and sheep farmers (2.5%) were all selected by respondents as major concerns regarding the release of pine martens back into the Forest of Dean. These concerns are genuine and must be treated with respect, even if they are the minority. With this in mind, conservationists are continuing to propose novel ideas to avoid these conflicts, with the VWT offering poultry farmers advice on how to construct marten-proof enclosures, and garden nesting boxes as a method of luring pregnant females away from roof interiors.
Compared to the 2014 study on public attitudes towards pine martens, the 2018 survey indicated an overwhelming support towards the species’ reintroduction. So why and how are public perceptions towards pine martens changing? Again, the role of the pine marten in suppressing grey squirrel populations cannot be understated, however this is only a single cog in the wheel of a much larger movement. The increased recognition of the importance of indigenous species – like the pine marten – is in keeping with the surge of ‘faunal nationalism’ sweeping across the UK. This sentiment of ‘faunal nationalism’ refers to the support of the conservation and reintroduction of native species, even at the expense of non-native populations. This trend can be traced back to the re-introduction of beavers in Scotland two decades ago. In the years since, the British public have become conscious of the roles that indigenous species have in healing human-damaged ecosystems, such as beavers reducing downstream flooding during peak storm discharge (ROBT, 2020) and providing habitat for an array of other wetland species (Białek, 2018). Further, and as alluded to earlier in the article, this growth in positive public attitude towards the re-wilding of native British species bodes well for the proposed future reintroductions of larger apex predators.
As an ending thought, and regardless of how much the landscape of rural Britain has changed in the decades and centuries since these species last walked the land, it must be understood that these creatures were here before us and in their absence our forests fell into disrepair and our rivers became poisoned. Now we have the understanding and the power to bring these animals back and the public appears to be recognising the vast (and economically inexpensive) benefits they bring to damaged ecosystems. This recognition of the power of native ecosystems is perhaps best seen through the inability of the grey squirrel to recognise the scent of the pine marten as one of a predator, whilst the native red squirrel scurries up into the canopy and out of harm’s way. So intricate are the relationships between native species that the absence of one means the disfunction of another. Likewise, so strong are these ties that the reintroduction of one can mean the thriving of the woodland and the wetlands for generations to come.