Llanelli Naturalists Newsletter - Summer 1997 - No 62
John Messenger

In January 1995, The Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT) embarked on a study of the status and distribution of Pine Martens in Wales and the Marches. In Britain, little work had been undertaken on this species south of the Scottish border. The VWT undertook the First British survey for Pine Martens in 1980-82 but the results from WaIes were inconclusive. Since then there have been two other surveys in Wales, the first and more substantial being that undertaken by Rob Strachan and Don Jefferies in 1987/88 and the second being a CCW commissioned survey undertaken in 1994 by the University of Bristol. All of these surveys employed similar methods, i.e. searching predefined transects for marten scats. The results of the two most recent surveys were similar although the interpretation of the results was quite different. However, both indicate that Pine Martens are relatively scarce in Wales. The Bristol survey report went as far as to suggest that Pine Martens were effectively extinct in Wales and reintroduction was suggested.

The VWT believes that past survey methods, developed in Scotland in areas of strong marten populations, may be ineffective in other areas where the populations are smaller and not expanding and where the behavioural ecology of the species might be quite different.

Reports of sightings

In order to assess the true status and distribution of the species in Wales we have been trying to develop new survey techniques. Quite early on we discovered that sightings of possible martens were being made in Wales but that these were either not being reported or were reported to a range of different local organisations. The VWT has produced a range of publicity material and has been actively encouraging possible marten sightings to be reported. Reports are carefully recorded and assessed by interview using a standard questionnaire form, particular care being taken to avoid influencing the information given by the observers. All reports are given a confidence score from one to ten according to the quality of information available.

Results so far

Although all reports have been accepted, we are particularly interested in those of high-scoring sightings made during the current decade. Our database currently holds 244 records from Wales, of which 135 relate to sightings. Of these sightings, 88 were made in the 1990s and earned confidence scores of six or more. These 88 records are, despite a very widespread and even distribution of our publicity, mostly from the upland areas of the Cambrian Mountains (see map below). The records do not appear to support the recent view that martens in Wales occur as two discrete populations, the main one being centred on the Snowdonia National Park with a smaller population existing in parts of Carmarthenshire and north Brecknock. Instead they show an almost continuous distribution from north to south, and the north Wales bias is not evident. However, we really need to obtain many more reports of sightings in order to be sure of these indications. Nevertheless, a provisional analysis of these reports supports the view that these records are not randomly distributed. Undulating lowland, steep or rugged hill land, and some coastal areas (land classes 7, 16, 17 and 18) appear to be positively selected as do coniferous and broadleaf woodland. Although this appears to show the importance of woodland, it is interesting to note that the vast majority of sightings were made away from the areas of extensive conifer plantation, selected as sole survey areas by the Bristol University survey team.

We have also received a number of reports of martens found dead on the road, although in none of these cases was the animal collected (see map below). Seven of these reports are from the 1990s and, because they were examined by competent observers, could be assigned confidence scores of six or more. These road kills occurred in similar areas to the sightings. We are anxious to obtain any such marten material, irrespective of the state of decay, for morphological and genetic work.  A few high-scoring sightings have been reported from the English counties along the Welsh border.

Other work

Although we are aware of the possible shortcomings of the scat transect approach to marten surveying and monitoring, we are continuing trials of this method in Wales. We are also working on a baiting station design which collects small fur samples from animals which visit the station. Fur samples can be used to identify species and may also be used for DNA 7extraction. Linked to this, we are hoping to obtain DNA profiles from preserved material from Wales. So far we have located nine skins of Welsh martens in museums. It may also prove possible to extract DNA from the mucus which coats marten scats. In the last few months we have also been testing an automatic camera/data logging system which photographs animals passing through an infra-red beam.

Pine Marten distribution

More help needed

Although we are very grateful to all those who have helped with this work by distributing leaflets and posters or by actually submitting reports of sightings, we need to continue the publicity effort. This is particularly important when it comes to obtaining road kill martens, because a delay of only a day or so seems to result in the corpse being scavenged. You can help by putting up more posters, distributing leaflets, and, of course, reporting any sightings to me at VWT.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust, 16 Ithon Close, Llandrindod Wells, Powys, LD1 6BD.    Tel: 01597 825536.