News | Project Blog | People & Pine Martens in Wales August update

1st September 2014

I find August a quiet month for wildlife. Birds have stopped their courtship songs and have moulted their breeding finery into more modest plumage, the hues of which match the tired looking leaves this time of year. The days are getting perceptibly shorter, the hay has been cut, and most flowering plants have blossomed and bloomed. I was picking blackberries in the second week of August this year – early, and a result of the excellent growing season this year. The early fruit bonanza has been taken full advantage of by birds and mammals alike, and the scats we are finding at the moment, from all species, are full of berry seeds.

One of the potential benefits of restoring pine martens in Wales is a boost to the growing wildlife tourism industry here in Wales. In Scotland, where pine martens have recovered from refugia in the western highlands and are now expanding south towards England, tourists and wildlife enthusiasts travel from all over Britain, and even abroad, to watch pine martens from hides. With this in mind, colleagues and I travelled up to Speyside with the aim of investigating just how prevalent the pine marten was on the tourism scene, whether this could be replicated in Wales, and what people’s attitudes to the animals were.I spent a fair bit of time at the beginning of the month supervising a project by a student from Bangor University in Coed y Brenin and Gwydyr Forest, mentioned in last month’s blog. These forests represent two of the largest and oldest forests in Wales. Though both forests have been logged and re-forested numerous times, they represent sites that have been more or less continuously wooded for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and the plan for Coed y Brenin is to entirely replace the conifer forest with native broadleaf over the next 100 years. It is therefore a very strong candidate as a site for a recovering pine marten population; what better way to start a transition back to native woodland than restoring our most charismatic native carnivore?

It is clear that pine martens can be a significant draw, at a time where Wales is on the cusp of really reaching out and embracing eco-tourism. We already have beautiful landscapes and wonderful wildlife; but it could get better and better, with the reintroduction of the beaver next year, talk of reintroducing the sea eagle to our coastal estuaries, a growing osprey population, and the icing on the cake, the reestablishment of our forest sprite, Bele, in heart of wild Wales.We also visited the Aigas Field Centre, which has been leading the way in wildlife tourism in the Highlands for 35 years. We had a meeting with field centre manager Warwick Lister-Kaye, son of Sir John Lister-Kaye, who conceived and established the field centre back in the 1970s. It was a very productive meeting, with some excellent insight from Warwick. He highlighted the fact that pine martens are an ideal draw for wildlife tourists: they are elusive, nocturnal, and extremely hard to see in the wild, but they are also highly charismatic, long lived, territorial, and opportunistic, readily investigating a novel source of food and learning quickly. It is the very fact that seeing one in the wild is so highly unlikely that makes them ideal for tourism – people generally have to visit a hide to see them. If anything, he was slightly loathe (jokingly) that they were doing so well in the Highlands – soon there will competition for the Aigas hides popping up everywhere!It was obvious that some of the main players on the wildlife tourism scene in Scotland were capitalising on the healthy pine marten population; a number of the top tour operators offer hide visits, where visitors can generally expect to sit, wait, and observe either pine martens, badgers or both at close quarters. We were lucky enough to watch two martens, a young female and large, healthy male. There is no denying their charm. From the way they move, to their sleek attractive appearance, they are beautiful animals to watch, and they always materialise from nowhere! How lucky people are to be able to observe them from hides, in stark contrast to the situation in Wales and England where pine martens teeter on the edge of extinction. There is even a bar, ‘The Pine Marten Bar’, from which you can buy pine marten t-shirts and other souvenirs, or just have a beer or a cup of tea whilst overlooking the veranda, which backs  onto birch and pine woodland. It’s here that peanut feeders are set up, and a diurnal show has developed. As Bill, the landlord, explained, “the squirrels (red) and the pine marten are on a time share. The squirrels come in the day and the pine marten turns up after dark”. What a thrill, to be able to visit at different times of the day and see either one of our most attractive native mammals. And they do not exclude each other – they both thrive. This is what happens when two animals that have co-evolved over thousands of years share the same space in a natural setting; the squirrels develop coping strategies. This is where the grey squirrel has a distinct disadvantage – its range in America does not overlap with any marten species; it is completely naïve, and as such, ill-equipped to deal with the pine marten.

David Bavin, Pine Marten Project Officer