Humans love a story of heroes and villains and can be all too quick to apply the labels to nature. Red squirrels – good. Grey squirrels – bad. But pine martens? That’s not so clear.
Following an absence of nearly a century, the pine marten, a small, chestnut-brown carnivore once almost hunted to extinction in the UK in a bid to protect game birds and poultry, is now returning through a series of planned releases. From 2015 to 2017, 51 martens were released in Wales with two more releases planned for 2019 – the first, a translocation of wild pine martens to the Forest of Dean, due to take place in the Autumn; the second, a smaller release of captive-bred martens in north Wales. For a decent chance of success a release of around 25 pine martens is generally considered necessary.
The animals have been celebrated in the media as a natural way to control grey squirrel populations which, ever since their arrival from North America in 1876, have led to regional extinctions of the native red squirrel. This optimism stems from research carried out in Ireland and Scotland which found that the more pine martens researchers recorded in a woodland, the more likely they were to find red squirrels and the less likely to find grey squirrels.
However, while the research is compelling, Craig Shuttleworth, an honorary visiting research fellow at Bangor University, who is involved in the second proposed release, cautions against an unguarded approach. ‘We should be careful that just because we see a set of results or associations in one ecological circumstance, it doesn’t mean to say that we’ll find that everywhere. Ecology is complicated and systems are quite dynamic. I’m acutely aware that the borders of Scotland and Ireland are very different from the south of England.’ He adds that pine martens are known to eat red squirrels and that it is too simplistic to say that they simply prefer to eat greys. He is also dismissive of the theory that, being smaller, red squirrels can escape to the ends of thin branches.
One of Shuttleworth’s main concerns is that simplistic reporting will encourage enthusiasts to reintroduce pine martens without proper thought. ‘Under-the-radar dumping of animals almost certainly takes place,’ he says. ‘That’s not something we would support in any way. It breaks all the guidelines and there are disease implications.’ Though an advocate for the marten and its role as a grey squirrel predator, he is wary of the tendency to pick heroes so easily. ‘Lay advocates will just say pine martens are going to be the saviour and ask why we are denying it. They’re not prepared to look at the potential complexities and barriers.’
This was published in the May 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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