Why I wish the pine marten a long and happy future
Contributors to the media are constantly seeking news that will capture the reader's attention.
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.