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

1st August 2014

July got off to a positive start with the Rheidol Fun/Environment Day! It was exactly what is said on the tin – families came along to have plenty of fun whilst finding out what nature related projects were going on in the surrounding area. I had some activities planned for the kids which I was terrified would be too boring, having not been a child for at least six months…. I need not have worried. My mind seems to have remained sufficiently child-like to come up with some entertaining pine marten related games! My quiz was given the miniature seal of approval, whilst my ‘bib design’ game went down a storm (well, a persistent waft). The idea behind the latter was that every pine marten has a more or less unique chest pattern, which we can use to identify individuals. The children therefore had to design their own unique chest bib and wear it around, spreading the message far and wide. I was assisted by Mairi, a work experience student from Llanfyllin High School, who gamely wore her own bib all day and did a great job chatting to all the folk passing through.

Mairi was also with me for a day chasing up the sighting in Caio Forest, mentioned last month. We covered good ground searching for scats on a circuit laced with camera traps. The cameras turned up foxes, badger, rabbits, buzzards, Jays, a raven, various rodents (including what I think must be yellow necked mice), an enormous free range bloodhound, and the increasingly ubiquitous grey squirrel. Alas, no pine marten!

Monitoring has now shifted north. We are working with a student from Bangor University to survey Coed y Brenin and Gwydyr Forest, two areas I have been itching to get stuck into. The student, Menno, is comparing the ability of three different methods – scat transect, camera trap and hair snare – to gain an index of relative fox abundance in the two forests. This data may become useful in the future if pine martens fail to recover in these areas, despite our efforts to recover the population. We might then come back to the fox data and try to further determine if fox abundance is linked to this failure.  Currently, we can look at fox abundance in two ways. The presence of foxes can be seen as good, as foxes have a large degree of dietary overlap with martens, and a high abundance might suggest plenty of food, or it could be seen as a potential problem: foxes are competitors and sometimes predators of pine martens. The relationship is not so black and white though. An adult marten is larger than a fox cub, and some astonishingly fortunate footage from Poland has revealed an adult marten entering a fox den when the vixen is away, killing her four 3-4 week old cubs. This phenomenon, termed inter-guild predation (meaning predation between predators in this case), is evidently a two way process, and is likely not just restricted to pine marten and fox. Polecats may kill pine marten young, and a badger will kill fox cubs when they are small, and vice versa. We must avoid judging this behaviour anthropomorphically – it is simply an instinctual urge for an animal to remove a competitor, a competitor that would otherwise compete for food or try and kill them or their own young further down the line. It is simply one facet of the many complex interactions between individuals, within and between species. It is part of what makes ecology fascinating!

I went along to a meeting/workshop hosted by the Welsh government for the ‘Cambrian Action Zone’, relating to the 6 million pound Nature Fund and how best to use it. The money has been designated for large scale environmental projects, with grand scope and grand collaborations. The idea itself is great. To seed fund a few large projects which can then develop and generate their own funding in the future, becoming, ideally, self-sustaining. I liked the holistic thinking. To achieve this, it was proclaimed that projects needed to become more mainstream, demonstrating to commercial investors how they can deliver economically tangible results, such as clean water, flood defence etc. It encouraged me to think that our pine marten work would fit into this model of development. Say you had a large project to restore an entire catchment to its functional optimum, resulting in reduced water flow, healthier streams and rivers, flood defence, new carbon sinks in the form of newly planted woodland and restored peat beds etc. The pine marten could be an integral part of this process by reducing damage to new woodland from rodents and grey squirrels, which would otherwise hamper the development of young broadleaf woodland – they would therefore have a quantifiable, economic value in the overall process, based on how much money could be saved from flood damage. Now I am a naturalist first and foremost, and I soon began to feel uneasy with this new model of thought.  As a concept, ‘ecosystem services’ does have its merits, and is perhaps part of the solution if conservation is to step up to the level of sophistication practised in the National Parks of North America. The danger of thinking this way, however, is that independent elements of biodiversity could, in the eyes of planning and policy, become reduced to monetary units associated with a particular process, rather than being appreciated for their inherent value, their wider role within complex communities, or simply their right to exist. It is always possible that pine martens, when re-established in Wales, do not reduce the incidence of grey squirrel damage to trees (though I think this unlikely). It would be a great shame if, according to economics, the reinforcement was then labelled a failure. Regardless of the role pine martens play in grey squirrel dynamics, their future reestablishment as a native mammal should be something to celebrate as a major conservation success in its own right, not something to be analysed on a spreadsheet. 

David Bavin, Pine Marten Project Officer