Most wanted - the pine marten in Northumberland
PUBLISHED: 08:35 09 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:56 20 February 2013
The public have been asked to turn detective and help in the search for an elusive predator believed to be at large somewhere in the North East
Detectives have been combing a remote wood in Northumberlands Coquet valley, in search of an elusive predator believed to have sought refuge in the area. Sounds familiar?
A number of unconfirmed sightings had been reported in the area, but search teams were able to target the Kidland Forest after forensic DNA evidence confirmed the dense conifer plantation had been used as a den. Searches are also continuing at further locations in Northumberland and Durham where members of the public have reported sightings, including Harwood, Slaley and Hamsterley forests.
No, its not what you think. The detectives concerned are wildlife enthusiasts. Their quarry? The shy and secretive pine marten, a handsome, cat-sized mammal with rich, glossy brown fur, a creamy white bib on its throat and chest, and a long, bushy tail.
These charismatic animals, related to stoats and otters, were once common throughout much of Britain, but persecution and habitat loss saw their population shrink drastically, until by the start of the twentieth century they were largely confined to the north of Scotland. In recent years the Scottish population has enjoyed a healthy recovery, but it hasnt been at all clear whether isolated populations had survived south of the border. Until now, that is.
Last year the Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT) began Prospects for Pine Martens, a two year project to try to identify where, if anywhere, pine martens survived in England and Wales, and to enhance and secure those habitats.
And this year the project had its first significant success, when DNA testing of a scat (dropping) recovered from Kidland Forest, just north of Alwinton in Upper Coquetdale, showed it was from a female pine marten. Whats more, the scat was found in an artificial den box, suggesting the female may have used the box to raise young.
Its not every day an animal thought to be locally extinct is rediscovered, and conservationists were thrilled. Kevin OHara, the Northumberland Wildlife Trust conservation officer who found the scat, describes it as The holy grail for me and many others.
Having searched for pine martens for years, and had many tantalising reports, to finally confirm the presence of pine marten in Northumberland is monumental, he says.
Earlier this year VWT published a report analysing 12 years of reported sightings in England and Wales by naturalists, land managers and members of the public. The report highlighted Northumberland, Durham and the North York Moors as among those areas most likely to harbour viable surviving populations of pine martens.
Neil Jordan is project manager of Prospects for Pine Martens. Since the mid-1990s the Vincent Wildlife Trust has received more than 50 reported sightings of pine martens in Northumberland, so we have always known that they were there, but now we have the DNA evidence to back this up, he says.
Neil has mobilised a small army of volunteers in the North East to help look for pine marten scats in likely locations, and to set up den boxes. Scats are sent for analysis to the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, where scientists have already DNA tested almost 1,000 droppings on behalf of the VWT.
Because pine martens are elusive and nocturnal, surveying relies on this tracks and turds approach. Scat analysis is a key method, but Neil has also adopted an array of other techniques. He has set up hair tubes smeared with peanut butter, and camera traps baited with an unsavoury recipe of supermarket chicken smeared with strawberry jam. Animals which investigate the hair tubes leave small traces of fur, which can be analysed for DNA, while those attracted to the food baits will hopefully take their own picture. The baited sites are made even more pine marten-friendly by spiking with a potent scent lure, used in North America by hunters and fur trappers, which contains ingredients such as marten musk, fish oil, castor oil and even skunk secretions.
Neil has even taken to dragging a roadkill rabbit through the woods, in the hope that a passing pine marten will follow the blood and scent trail to a feeding area. And he is experimenting with an mp3 player and speaker, playing the grating sound of a calling pine marten, to attract any nearby females.
Hes keen to hear from anyone who thinks they may have seen a pine marten in the region. We are asking members of the public to turn wildlife detective and report any sightings of pine martens. Sightings will be followed up by more detailed investigations to confirm the presence of the mammals, including looking for scats and setting up hair-tubes to collect DNA samples, he says.
If you think you have seen a pine marten, or want to get involved in the Prospects for Pine Martens project, visit the project website at www.pinemarten.info or call 01531 636441.