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 and merit headlines that were previously used to describe the spread of mink.
The pine marten is still Irelands 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 seventeen years and are fierce hunters and predators. They are mainly meat eaters but will devour almost anything they can catch which includes 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. Like the fox and mink, the marten is also not adverse to a feed of farmyard fowl and chicken runs are now being visited by it with rather greater frequency than before but let us keep a sense of perspective here and give the marten a break. He is one of our few true natives and was widespread centuries ago before being hunted and almost exterminated for his fur.
Generations of poultry keepers have suffered from raids by that wiliest of predators, the fox and for decades, mink, formerly released from captivity, adapted all too well to life in rural Ireland and have caused havoc, especially where game birds are kept temporarily in pens. It is odd that we don’t hear much about the mink these days even though they are still plentiful as is that lethal predator, the feral cat which kills large numbers of song birds. Along with these, the huge increase in the numbers of buzzards is a cause for concern and even seagulls are beginning to attract some unwanted criticism. It is not easy being a song or game bird these days but carefully erected electric fencing will at least keep any chicken run safe from ground predators and it is relatively inexpensive and simple to install. The fox, for whatever reason is now loved by the urban community and we frequently read letters from city dwellers about how they enjoy feeding the foxes that visit their gardens. Fox hunting is being demonised and not a word is now written about the countless numbers of hens that have fallen victim to Reynard as he has almost been raised to the status of household pet. The BBC programme Countryfile tends to portray foxes and grey squirrels as adorable friends despite the fact that when allowed to breed unchecked, they cause serious damage. The alien grey squirrel has for years caused serious damage to our broadleaved trees and he is my public enemy number one. For that reason, I welcome the pine marten and wish him and his children, a long and happy future.