ONE of the country's most elusive mammals is on track for a full recovery, with numbers in the midlands among the highest in Europe.
Researchers in NUI Galway and Waterford Institute of Technology have found that pine marten numbers have risen in the midlands, with three per square kilometre – higher than in most of Europe.
The animal, a protected species, has been decimated by deforestation and hunting. But scientists now believe the population is increasing and is spreading from the west.
"We're looking at about three per square kilometre in the midlands and around one per square kilometre in Wicklow," researcher Dr Emma Sheehy said.
"You find them in woodland and surrounding areas, and they are very common in the midlands. We (examined) distribution maps from the 1980s and 2008, and the population has increased. Compared with studies in Europe, the numbers seem higher."
Researchers studied hair samples from five different sites over a two-year period and extracted DNA which identified the number of individuals. It is estimated numbers vary from 3,000 to 10,000 across the country.
The pine marten is native to Ireland and is the size of a domestic cat. Known as 'cat crainn' in Irish, or 'tree cat', it feeds off mammals, fruit and insects.
A lack of competition from predators, especially the fox, is among reasons for the rise in numbers.
"This is likely a result of both a lack of competition with other terrestrial mammal species, and the relatively warm winters we experience in Ireland," Dr Sheehy said.
A slow-breeding species, the mammal is sensitive to persecution and loss of habitat, and a population can take a very long time to recover from such impacts.
Hunted for its fur, known as sable, the pine marten has been protected by Irish law since the 1970s. The research will be published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.