Business Farming

Saturday 1 October 2016

Why I wish the pine marten a long and happy future

Joe Barry

Published 14/09/2016 | 02:30

Give the Pine Marten a break
Give the Pine Marten a break

Contributors to the media are constantly seeking news that will capture the reader's attention.

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For writers of headline stories, shock items are their bread and butter and for these, one need look no further than the natural world for an endless supply of suitable material. Invasions of aliens such as grey squirrels, mink, muntjac deer, harlequin ladybirds, zebra mussels, gunnera or giant rhubarb and Japanese knotweed have all featured prominently in recent years. This time it is the turn of the formerly scarce pine marten to receive attention.

Having written some nine years ago on the recovery in the numbers of this shy and fascinating creature, I was surprised to see how it is now attracting headlines that were previously used to describe the spread of mink.

At that time I wrote as follows: "The pine marten is still Ireland's rarest wild animal although numbers are slowly increasing across much of the country. It hunts by night and spends most of its time in trees, hence the name 'cat crainn'. Most of us have never seen a pine marten and although they are now becoming more widespread, they are understandably very wary of humans and their presence is often only noticed by traces of their scats or droppings.

"In some parts of Ireland, they are referred to as marten cats - being about the same size as a cat but have shorter legs with strong feet and claws for climbing. They can live up to 17 years and are fierce hunters and predators. They are mainly meat eaters but will devour almost anything, including rats, mice, rabbits, small birds, beetles and thankfully, grey squirrels.

"Given the extensive damage the grey has inflicted on Irish woodland, the reappearance of a native predator that might reduce its numbers is widely welcomed. Apparently, the grey squirrel, being heavier than our native red, finds it difficult to escape the marten. The red is better able to get away due to its light body weight which allows it to gain safety on light branches. Pine martens are, of course, major predator of birds when they are nesting and this is causing some alarm in Scotland where game birds such as grouse and pheasant are so important to the rural economy.

"Presumably, like the fox and mink, the marten is also not adverse to a feed of farmyard fowl but I have not yet heard of chicken runs being raided."

That was written in 2007 and I realise that chicken runs are now being visited by pine martens with rather greater frequency than before, but let us keep a sense of perspective here and give the marten a break.

He is one of our few true natives and was widespread centuries ago before being hunted and almost exterminated for his fur. Generations of poultry keepers have suffered from raids by that wiliest of predators, the fox and for decades, mink, formerly released from captivity, adapted all too well to life in rural Ireland and have caused havoc, especially where game birds are kept temporarily in pens.

It is odd that we don't hear much about the mink these days even though they are still plentiful as is that lethal predator, the feral cat which kills large numbers of song birds. Along with these, the huge increase in the numbers of buzzards is a cause for concern and even seagulls are beginning to attract some unwanted criticism.

It is not easy being a song or game bird these days but carefully erected electric fencing will at least keep any chicken run safe from ground predators and it is relatively inexpensive and simple to install. The fox, for whatever reason is now loved by the urban community and we frequently read letters from city dwellers about how they enjoy feeding the foxes that visit their gardens. Fox hunting is being demonised and not a word is now written about the countless numbers of hens that have fallen victim to Reynard as he has almost been raised to the status of household pet.

The BBC programme Countryfile tends to portray foxes and grey squirrels as adorable friends despite the fact that when allowed to breed unchecked, they cause serious damage. I have written a lot in the past about the grey and how he is my public enemy number one.

For that reason, I welcome the pine marten and wish him and his children, a long and happy future.

Some predators do need to be culled

Huge changes have occurred in the Irish countryside since the Normans introduced rabbits in the 12th century.

When the government released myxomatosis in the 1950s, the predators that depended on the rabbit had to then find other food or starve.

Two hundred years ago, wood pigeons were scarce in Ireland but changes in agricultural practices including an increase in crops, such as oil seed rape, helped to boost their numbers. Now buzzards are relying on them for part of their diet.

Nature usually manages to find a balance - but not always - and some new arrivals of fungal diseases like Dutch elm and Chalara and plants like Gunnera have the upper hand.

Both gunnera, or giant rhubarb, along with Japanese knotweed are notoriously difficult to eliminate. Up until relatively recently, gamekeepers and others kept the worst of our predators like magpies, grey crows and foxes under control but now they seem to be abundant almost everywhere.

In some instances, there is definitely a case to be made for their control.

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