The pine marten (Martes martes) is making a recovery across Ireland, and is one our most beautiful but elusive mammals. It is notoriously difficult to see as it tends to be mostly nocturnal, and is a naturally shy animal. It is about the size of a cat, and in Irish it is actually called the tree cat (cat crainn). The pine marten historically suffered massive population declines due to forest removal in the 16th Century and pine marten were also trapped and killed for their fur, which was worn by the nobility across Europe. In the 20th Century, the use of strychnine as a poison to kill pests resulted in the widespread decline of the pine marten due to direct and indirect poisoning, but since its ban in 1991, and the introduction of legislative protection in the 1970’s, the pine marten has started to recover across Ireland, with populations now present throughout much of the country. Today, the pine marten is also protected by EU law and is listed as Annex V species, indicating its need for strict environmental protection.
The increase in their population can also be attributed to an increase in forest cover, with woodland cover increasing from about 1% to 10% between 1900 and 2009. However, woodland cover in Ireland is still one of the lowest levels in Europe, and despite the pine marten being a forest dweller across Europe, it tends to live in scrubbier areas in Ireland such as the Burren in Co. Clare where the pine marten inhabits hazel scrub. The pine marten is (for the most part) absent in Wales and England, but the North of Scotland is a stronghold for the species.
Where to look for pine marten
With a gradually increasing population, there are now more opportunities than ever to investigate the presence of this mammal using clues from the wild. The best place to head to is your local woodland and follow the forest track, keeping a keen eye on the ground to look for poo (scats)! Pine marten scats look a lot like fox scats, and the truth of the matter is there are no hard fast rules to accurately identify pine marten scats from fox without a DNA test, but there are a few tips that you can use to help. The ideal pine marten scat is dark and heart shaped or slightly curled. If you take a whiff of it, it tends to smell kind of musty and not terribly disgusting. Fox scats on the other hand are fairly pungent almost like a burning rubber smell, and tend to be larger than pine marten scats.
Pine marten are territorial animals so they use their scats and scent marks to communicate to other pine marten where their territories are. In addition to marking tracks, they’ll mark prominent areas within the forest such as tree stumps, fallen logs, walls and regularly used paths and passages.
Pine marten eat a highly varied diet. They will eat small mammals, bird eggs, invertebrates, fruits and nuts, and their scats will reflect this. The scats might contain fur and bones, but around August and September the scats are purple and full of blackberries, making it one of the best times of years to spot their scats.
Their footprints can also provide evidence of their presence. Dogs have four toes, but mustelids like badgers, stoats, otter, mink and pine marten all have five toes. Specialist guides such as those provided by the Mammal Society can be used to help you identify tracks. Some of the best times to look for footprints are in the snow and in fresh mud following rain.
Once you think you might have found some evidence of pine marten, another useful way to look for pine marten is the use of camera traps. Camera traps are infrared cameras that are triggered to record videos or images when movement is detected. People have had great success recording footage of pine marten using this method, and the cameras are now often available in Lidl and Aldi. They can also be purchased online from sellers like Amazon.
Finally, evidence of pine marten can be detected using hair-tubes that consist of a section of sewer pipe placed vertically on a tree trunk, baited with chicken and containing a patch of double sided sticky tape to collect hair. The hair can be identified to species using microscopic examination or DNA analysis. Alternatively, a trail camera can be placed near the tube to record and verify evidence of the pine marten at the site.
Pine marten used to typically use old tree cavities as den sites for breeding. With a lack of old trees, they will use alternatives such as dense thickets and possibly even ground sites, but they are all quite difficult to find. In Scotland, the use of artificial den boxes has had quite good success in terms of providing an alternative den site for the pine marten. Further information and instructions on how to construct a den box are available from the Vincent Wildlife Trust.
Pine marten have also been known to create a den site in the attic space of rural dwellings. While some people are delighted to have a pine marten den in their attic, advice can be sought by contacting your local National Parks and Wildlife Ranger. Secondly, owners of game and poultry pens can also run into problems when in close proximity to pine marten and to help mitigate this issue, the Vincent Wildlife Trust recently published a guide to help people exclude pine marten from them.
Finally, if you do have good evidence of pine marten or are lucky enough to see one be sure to submit your record to the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and remember we should be proud hat Ireland is home to this beautiful and mysterious animal.
O’Mahony, D., O’Reilly, C., & Turner, P. (2012). Pine marten (Martes martes) distribution and abundance in Ireland: A cross-jurisdictional analysis using non-invasive genetic survey techniques Mammalian Biology – Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, 77 (5), 351-357 DOI: 10.1016/j.mambio.2012.04.001