Following the last ice age, the pine marten became one of the most common predators across the British Isles, but by the early 20th century, human impacts meant only pockets of these elusive nocturnal animals remained – largely in Scotland.
Now, conservationists have confirmed that a wild population of the cat-sized animals living in the New Forest, in Hampshire, is large enough to be considered viable, meaning the species is successfully living in the south of England for the first time in over a century.
The first recording of a pine marten in the region in recent years was in 1993, by the New Forest Badger Group.
But over subsequent years, a series of other sightings have been made including videos of pine martens captured on hidden cameras which had in fact been set up to monitor other species.
Pine martens were all but wiped out across Britain by predator controls and loss of woodland habitats, but in recent years their numbers have risen, thanks in part to conservation and rewilding efforts.
Forestry England said that due to the “clear evidence that a population of pine martens has now become established in the New Forest, [a] survey team will be assessing the size of the population and their breeding success”.
The team also hopes to identify the various habitats and different parts of the forest where the pine martens are settling.
Leanne Sargeant, senior ecologist at Forestry England, said the return of pine martens to the area was a “fascinating development”, which will provide an opportunity to learn more about the species.
She said: “It is not often that we are able to talk about wildlife returning to landscapes and re-establishing their populations, so this is a really fascinating development to study.
“The New Forest is a unique landscape and a haven for wildlife, and through this work we hope to learn just what makes it such a good habitat for returning pine martens.”
According to Forestry England, the monitoring team will use a range of techniques to study the pine martens including the use of hidden cameras.
The species are larger than stoats, weasels, polecats and ferrets, and are chestnut brown in colour. Each has a uniquely shaped bib – the pale yellowish fur on its chin and throat. These bib-markings make it possible to identify and record every individual, and observing their interactions means the team will also be able to spot family groups.
Marcus Ward from the specialist conservation consultancy, Wild New Forest, said: “Since we recorded the first video evidence of Pine Martens in the New Forest in 2016, we have been following their progress with great interest. This new project is a wonderful opportunity to assess the current status of the New Forest population and will help inform their future conservation.”
Joanne Gore, of the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, said: “Pine marten should be part of the natural ecology of the south of England but persecution and habitat loss have decimated the population. However, tantalising records over the years have hinted that a population might indeed be once again present in the forest.
“The Trust are therefore pleased to be part of this joint project with Forestry England and Wild New Forest to establish presence and absence, across the New Forest, of this charismatic woodland species.”
The project, part funded by Defra, will share its findings with the national pine marten strategy focussing on the recovery of these rare creatures.
The self-established group comes after England’s first planned reintroduction of pine martens in the Forest of Dean in 2019, which reached a major milestone in the summer of 2020 with the birth of the first kits.