The European Pine Marten also known as the Pineten is an attractive but increasingly rare member of the mustelid family of animals. They are the only member of the Mustelid family that have semi retractable claws; this is an adaptation to tree climbing. In the UK it is one of the largest mustelid’s with a body length of up to 54cm with an additional 25cm of tail. They are fairly light as they spend time climbing with an average weight of about 3 ½ lbs or 1 ½ Kg but some males have been recorded as being over 2Kg.
They are light to dark brown in colour and although this fur colour doesn’t change in winter like some other mustelid’s it does grow thicker and sleeker in winter months. The most distinctive feature is a creamy/ yellow bib of fur around their throat and this is the key to a positive identification. It is thought that in the wild a Pine Marten can live to around ten years, this nearly doubles when kept in captivity.
Like Otters, Pine Martens mark their territory with faeces known as scats, these can be found on forest trails and a single male can occupy a territory of up to 25 square km, females needing a smaller area. Breeding season is during the summer months but the fertilisation is delayed so that the young are born in the spring of the following year so that the weather is milder and food more plentiful. A litter is normally up to five young and within 6 months they will be fully independent, the male Pine Marten takes no part in the rearing of the young. Females are very sensitive to disturbance when rearing young and have been known to eat the young when disturbed by humans.
Just over a hundred years ago Pine Martins were widespread in the UK and could be found on the Isle of Wight and some Scottish Islands, but this drastically declined due to shooting and loss of habitat. By the mid 1920’s they had declined to Northern England and North West Scotland. Now thanks to protection they are increasing in numbers and range in Scotland but are still thought to be very rare in England and Wales and it is hard to tell if their numbers are on the increase in these areas although there have been some sightings in Staffordshire, Northumberland and North Yorkshire.
The Pine Marten prefers woodland areas with dense cover in particular mature pine forests where fallen pine tree roots provide a good place to make a den, although scrub land cliffs have also been used as den sites. Outside of the UK the species can be found throughout Northern Europe.
Pine Martens are nocturnal hunters (but not exclusively so) this makes them hard to spot. They are omnivores with a wide diet able to change food sources depending on what’s available during the season, rodents (in particular voles), frogs, insects, small birds (including eggs) , as well as carrion and berries all form part of their diet. There is also growing evidence that they prey upon Grey Squirrels and may actual help prevent the greys intruding on the territory of the rarer Red Squirrel. Where the Grey Squirrel population meets the areas inhabited by Pine Martens they quickly retreat, it is thought that the Grey is easier prey for the Pine Marten than the Red Squirrel as although an able climber thanks to its semi retractable claws the Pine Marten prefers to hunt on the ground, the Grey Squirrel spends more time on the ground than the Red Squirrel and is hence more vulnerable to predation by the Pine Marten. In northern Europe, in particular in Finland and Sweden Squirrels form the main part of the Martens diet, those in the UK seem to have a more varied diet.Pine Martens are also prey for some animals mainly Golden Eagles and sometimes foxes but as usual the main threat has come from man. Once prized for their fur or killed by gamekeepers protecting game their numbers dropped across Europe and the UK. They are often mistaken for Mink and shot or poisoned or killed in traps set to trap other predators to protect livestock. In the UK the animal and their dens are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) as well as the Environmental Protection act 1990. Reintroduction is being considered in the UK but research into how practical this will be is on going.