Pine martens return to south of England after being on brink of extinction

The cat-sized predator is a relative of stoats and otters and was once widespread across Britain - Arterra/Universal Images Group Editorial
The cat-sized predator is a relative of stoats and otters and was once widespread across Britain - Arterra/Universal Images Group Editorial

Pine martens are making a comeback in the south of England after scientists found evidence they are breeding in the New Forest.

The cat-sized predator is a relative of stoats and otters and was once widespread across Britain before hunting drove them to the brink of extinction in the 20th century.

The findings will also benefit red squirrels, as the presence of pine martens will help reduce grey squirrel numbers.

Researchers at Forestry England, with funding from Defra, have been setting camera traps in the New Forest for the last two years after there were reports of the native predator in the area.

Now, the team has revealed that they are confident the population, though small, is breeding and growing steadily.

More than 100 video clips of pine martens were captured in 2022, including some showing kits playing together.

'Growing population'

Leanne Sargeant, a senior ecologist for Forestry England, told The Telegraph that the team does not yet know how big the population is.

“From the data we've got and the early records, it's a growing population. We're definitely confident they're establishing and increasing in number and spreading to the suitable habitat,” she said.

“Restoring this lost species back to its native habitat is a real positive because it is a species that should have been here all along. It is man that's caused its extinction so we are restoring that status back to its natural state.”

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She added that the team was now working with other projects to try to reintroduce pine martens back to other woodland areas in the south of England.

“We're looking at the feasibility of pine marten reintroductions along the south coast. There's some joint projects in the South Downs and Kent," she said.

“It would be ideal to have a sort of reintroduction project in areas like Wiltshire, Somerset or Dorset where we could link across into the Forest of Dean and the Welsh populations - or possibly down in the South West like Exmoor and Dartmoor.”

Forestry England is confident that the population of pine martens, though small, is breeding and growing steadily - Arterra/Universal Images Group Editorial
Forestry England is confident that the population of pine martens, though small, is breeding and growing steadily - Arterra/Universal Images Group Editorial

The early success in the New Forest came around by chance as a few stray pine martens were found in the area but the team are now hopeful that they can create an interconnected woodland network full of pine martens across the south of England.

Invasive grey squirrels have pushed the native reds to the fringes of the country but if pine martens can flourish then they may be able to thin out the greys.

Ms Sargeant told The Telegraph that projects in Ireland and Scotland show pine martens help manage grey squirrel populations and improve red squirrel numbers.

“Pine martens are causing grey squirrels to have a wider dispersal area,” she said.

“As soon as we can get on top of grey squirrels, we could establish red squirrels back across a wider area.”

A thinning of grey squirrels is good for red squirrels as reds are smaller and lighter and therefore able to avoid predation on the end of branches which greys and pine martens cannot reach, Ms Sargeant said.

“There's plenty of evidence coming from Scotland and Northern Ireland where red squirrels are doing really well where pine martens have re-established.

“It is not a fact that the pine marten is suddenly going to eat every grey squirrel in the South of England but they will have some impact.”