Changes to the natural landscape could put pine martens at threat, finds study

Poor management of forests and other natural landscapes are forcing native British predators, such as the pine marten into conflict with humans, a new report has found.

Wild pine marten in undergrowth/Credit: Josh Twining

Native predators, such as the pine marten could be risk of conflict with humans as it is adapts to survive in human-modified landscapes, a study by Queen’s University Belfast has found.

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The report also warned that adapting to survive in human-modified landscapes comes with significant costs to life for the pine marten.

Researchers found that habitat loss in conifer plantations could leave the pine marten with a lack of natural dens, leaving smaller female pine martens and their kits vulnerable to predation by larger predators such as the red fox.

The study found that human modified landscapes pushed the pine marten into conflict/Credit: Josh Twining
The study found that human modified landscapes pushed the pine marten into conflict/Credit: Josh Twining

Pine martens were widespread until the 19th century when they became commonly persecuted by gamekeepers and for their fur.  The population is estimated at 3,000-4,000 and they are found only in the Scottish Highlands and Grampians, with isolated populations in southern Scotland, England and north Wales. They are more common in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Scientists warn that the pressures risk undermining conservation measures that seek to revive populations of such species and may jeopardise their future survival.

“For the first-time in human-recorded history predator populations in parts of Europe are starting to recover in response to protective legislation and conservation measures,” says Dr Joshua P Twining from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University, who led the study.

“However, we still did not know how they will survive in landscapes that have been greatly changed and altered by humans in their absence.”

Two sleeping pine martens in box, David Tosh
Native predator populations are extremely important for healthy functioning ecosystems, found the Queen’s University Belfast study/Credit: David Tosh

Native predator populations are extremely important for healthy functioning ecosystems; however, due to a long-storied decline driven by human persecution and habitat loss, these are currently a fraction of their natural size globally.

Natural old-growth woodland is an ideal habitat for pine martens but now represents just 0.1% of cover in the UK and Ireland. In contrast, 75% of the two countries’ limited woodland cover is deemed ‘human-modified’ and managed for plantations and other uses.

The study looked at the pine marten’s denning behaviour in both natural and modified woodlands. It found that the animal survived in commercial plantations by making use of the wider landscape in habitats that are often overlooked and undervalued: scrub, heath and hedgerows that form property boundaries. They find refuge in underground and man-made structures such as stone walls, rocky crevices, log piles and abandoned buildings.

Pine marten in tree, Frantisek Koneval
Habitat loss has contributed to the decline in Britain’s native carnivore species, such as pine martens/Credit: Frantisek Koneval

In natural old-growth woodland, the pine martens rarely left the forest, and 99% of dens were found above ground in natural denning sites, in tree cavities and ivy crowns of veteran native trees. These natural woodlands supported a healthy high-density population of pine marten, with an even sex ratio and age structure.

This contrasts with results from human modified landscapes, In plantations, pine martens lived at significantly lower densities, around 25%, of that observed in the natural old-growth forest. These areas were also dominated by male pine martens and saw fewer kits reaching maturity.

“To fulfil societal ambitions of supporting biodiversity and healthy ecosystems we must improve how we manage our natural landscapes,” says Dr Twining. ‘This is especially true in Britain and Ireland where we have caused the extinction of all our apex predators and continue to persecute the remaining, such as the red fox and pine marten.”

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“A stop-gap solution would involve the wide-spread deployment of artificial den boxes in commercial conifer plantations, which may mitigate some of the potential for human-wildlife conflict as the species continues to recover,” says Dr Twining. In the longer-term, there is a need to end practices such as clear felling and instead restore conditions that encourage long-term growth of conifer woodlands.