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Elusive Shropshire pine martens caught on camera

Thanks to Tesco funding and the hard work of volunteers, it’s been confirmed that the rare pine marten has made a comeback to the woodlands of Shropshire.

Pine martens are chestnut-coloured, cat-sized members of the stoat and weasel family. Bushy-tailed expert tree-climbers, they are very rare in England and in Shropshire were thought to have died out over 100 years ago. Then unexpectedly in 2015 local wildlife recorder Dave Pearce snapped a photo of a pine marten in a Shropshire woodland.

The Shropshire Wildlife Trust decided to start an investigation and find out if pine martens had returned and whether they might be breeding locally. Tesco funding and contributions from members were used to carry out a surveillance mission to track down the shy and rarely seen mammals.

Project manager Stuart Edmunds visited local woodlands with conservation sniffer dogs to decide where to locate camera traps to watch for wildlife. These amazing canines are able to sniff out scents and droppings, providing clues to places visited by the pine martens. Twenty camera traps were installed with motion sensing remote cameras. When an animal or bird moves in front, the camera begins recording.

Sifting through the evidence can be a slow process according to Stuart:

There are lots of grey squirrels, and things like falling branches trigger the cameras. There can be thousands of clips to look through.

Luckily Stuart had a great team of volunteers to help monitor the traps for images of pine martens. Volunteers involved with the project have included children from the local school as young as six and local wildlife enthusiasts up to the grand old age of 87. A total of 250 people have been out in the woodlands helping in the hunt for the pine martens, checking the cameras and installing new safe den boxes.

Eventually images of pine martens – at least eight different individuals – were recorded in the Clun Valley woodlands. And in 2017, a breakthrough – a young pine marten was spotted by one of the Tesco funded cameras, indicating that the pine martens are breeding locally.

Now efforts are being made to improve the habitat to encourage the growing new population in south Shropshire. Stuart explains:

The main thing they need is mature trees. So the most important thing is to plant more trees, and to get people to plant oak and birch trees rather than coniferous species.

Work is ongoing with gamekeepers and landowners to explain the project, encourage habitat development and change attitudes.

We’ve been getting gamekeepers and landowners on side so they know to look out for pine martens. They were originally hunted to extinction because they were thought of as vermin so we need to change attitudes so they can flourish again.

In the wildlife trust’s own reserve, Clunton Coppice, some trees have also been cut down to let light in and encourage ground cover such as bilberries which are a great energy rich food source for the creatures.

In the next phase of the project Stuart is hoping to be able to capture DNA from the local pine martens.

We want to find out where they have come from. Have they been hiding here all along or have they come from the main breeding population in Scotland? We might find the genetic type thought to be extinct for 100 years.

The Tesco Bags of Help funding has been crucial in helping Stuart and his team support this new family of rare mammals.

The funding has been incredibly useful because it allowed us to install double the camera traps. And it was one of those extra cameras that allowed us to see the young pine marten. That’s been the biggest breakthrough of the project so far!

Shropshire’s pine martens are becoming celebrities, with appearances on the One Show and Countryfile. It’s hoped that this is the start of a comeback for these beautiful creatures in woodlands across England.

Watch the Shropshire Wildlife Trust film footage below:

Click here to read more Tesco Bags of Help success stories.