A long, bushy tail was the first thing I saw. Fox? It leapt a light hop, so I knew my guess was wrong. With an agile jump it dashed vertically up a Scots pine tree, vanishing into the canopy. Pine marten! That fleeting glimpse in the Highlands, at the age of eight, sparked a passion for these elusive creatures that has never left me.
Since that sighting thirty years ago, pine martens have done surprisingly well in Scotland, spreading north-east to Aberdeenshire from their stronghold in the Great Glen and south-west beyond Glasgow. It is now estimated that the Scottish population numbers over four thousand, thanks to an abundance of food and suitable habitat.
The story is not so positive in England and Wales. These large members of the mustelid family, which includes badgers and weasels, were once common when England was covered in forest, but as our woodland cover has decreased, so too have marten numbers. Viewed as a pest by gamekeepers and valued for their thick fur, pine martens were hunted to the verge of extinction in Wales and have been presumed extinct in England since the 1950s.
In Shropshire, my home county, there had been occasional reports of pine martens over the years, none of which had been substantiated. My favourite mammal, everyone assured me, was long gone from the county.
Still, I refused to give up hope. This most secretive of creatures was, I reckoned, quite capable of eluding people. Was there a possibility they might be silently going about their lives in the darkness of Shropshire’s woods and forests?
I decided to check out those old, rejected records, co-ordinating a six-year survey with a group of loyal volunteers. We scoured the areas indicated by the sightings, searching for road kill martens, footprints in mud and most importantly, pine marten scat.
The mission to find marten scat consumed me for a number of years, to the point that the number of scats being stored in my fridge-freezer began to cause tensions with my girlfriend. People told me to stop wasting my time and do something useful. The relationship ended but the pine marten survey went on.
I hired a trained scat detection dog three times to increase the probability of finding positive evidence. Further expense was ploughed into the purchase of numerous camera traps, which required weekly checks. Appeal posters in south Shropshire and on TV led to a few more unverifiable reports. Doubt crept in: it was looking increasingly likely that my hunch had been wrong and pine martens simply did not exist in the county.
So, when on a Monday morning in July 2015 I received a message that a photographer had seen a pine marten in Shropshire, I was sceptical. Yet another polecat, I thought, or perhaps a mink or domestic cat. Two days later, I came across an email waiting in my inbox, with the unlikely title ‘Pine Marten photo’. It will be someone’s pet ferret, I told myself.
Opening the attachment a shiver went down my spine: at full stretch, running through the trees was a dark-furred mustelid with a white bib. Here, at last, was unmistakeable proof of a Shropshire pine marten.
Within hours, I was on my way to the secret location and deploying camera traps, hardly expecting the animal still to be around. But what I saw on the footage five days later was even more extraordinary that the initial photo: not one, but two martens: an adult female and a juvenile.
The significance of this discovery was massive. Here was the first irrefutable evidence of pine martens living in Shropshire for over a century and the first in England for more than fifty years. Six national papers covered the story and it made national television and radio headlines.
Since those heady days following the discovery, we have recorded numerous brief moments in the lives of Shropshire’s martens: bounding over fallen trees, sniffing among leaves, eyes shining bright in the black and white footage. Nine individuals have been identified by their distinctive bib patterns and size within the study area.
Pine martens are now an integral part of my work at Shropshire Wildlife Trust. A funding appeal enabled me to keep the project going, giving me the chance to talk to local woodland owners and encourage them to put up den boxes and manage their woods for martens.
I have seen martens twice in Shropshire now; just for fleeting glimpses as they dashed through the undergrowth and to the top of a huge pine tree. That’s two sightings for a combined 6 seconds in 3.5 years of spending a day a week in their territory.
But it isn’t necessarily spotting the martens that excites me – it is more the knowledge that as I walk the woods of south Shropshire- the place I have wandered for over 35 years- I am walking in the realm of the pine marten on my own doorstep. It really adds to the sense that incredibly, we still have areas wild enough to support these most secretive of animals.
Written by Stuart Edmunds, with contribution from Sarah Gibson, at Shropshire Wildlife Trust.