Study finds numbers of elusive pine martens on rise in midlands

Research finds first evidence of species feeding on invasive north American grey squirrel

A new study has found the pine marten population in the midlands is proportionately higher than in other parts of Europe. Photograph: Getty

A new study has found the pine marten population in the midlands is proportionately higher than in other parts of Europe. Photograph: Getty

 

Some people might think Ireland’s most elusive mammal is the tiger, but if you are a zoologist you will know it is the pine marten.

Now, a new study has found the pine marten population in the midlands is proportionately higher than in other parts of Europe.

What’s more, the study by Waterford Institute of Technology and NUI Galway (NUIG) has found the first evidence of pine martens feeding on the invasive north American grey squirrel.

The research, led by Dr Emma Sheehy and Dr Colin Lawton of NUIG’s Ryan Institute Mammal Ecology Group, involved analysing DNA to assess the population levels in the midlands and east.

By scrutinising the mammal’s “scats” or dung, they could confirm that the grey squirrel made for a pine marten dinner or two in Co Wicklow - whereas there was no evidence that they consumed the native red squirrel, which has coexisted successfully with the tree climbing predator elsewhere.

Grey squirrels are less agile than red squirrels, and their numbers are higher than the latter, which may have made them an occasional target. There is no evidence that the population recovery in the midlands is linked to the grey squirrels’ presence, Dr Sheehy says, as these squirrels are not particularly abundant in the region.

The pine marten is a slow breeding species which is very sensitive to habitat loss such as deforestation and hunting, and it can take a long time to recover from such impacts, Dr Sheehy and Dr Lawton explain. It has been a protected species by law here since the 1970s.

The scientists believe the recovery in the midlands may be due to lack of competition with other terrestrial mammals, relatively warm winters and “lack of seasonality”.

They caution that there is insufficient information on current pine marten numbers in much of Europe.

The scientists found the pine martens have a preference for woodmice. The study is one of several they are undertaking, and is due to be published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research. It was funded by The Irish Research Council and the European Squirrel Initiative.