Over­come by the pong of a pine-marten den? Count your­self lucky

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Michael Viney

Afriend who lives on a windy hill­top, in a house nes­tled in trees, called to tell of a strange smell in her wood­shed. There was some­thing, per­haps, go­ing on in one cor­ner, be­hind a pile of tools. She had glimpsed a furry tail.

This is the sea­son when furry an­i­mals have ba­bies – and a leafy hill­top ad­join­ing conifer forestry made the pine marten, no­to­ri­ous for sit­ing its nurs­ery in at­tics and sheds, the likely can­di­date.

A lis­ten at the door was re­warded by sounds of mew­ing from the cor­ner, as of kit­tens. The scat­ter of drop­pings on the floor matched that of Martes martes, or the Ir­ish cat crainn. We re­treated, happy that Ire­land’s rarest mam­mal, long in slow re­vival af­ter cen­turies of de­cline, was stak­ing out a new do­main above the western shore.

What might have clinched the mat­ter was the dis­tinc­tive smell of the scat, so often de­scribed as like that of Parma vi­o­lets, even by peo­ple without great ex­pe­ri­ence ei­ther of the flower or of the scented English sweet of the same name.

As a con­nois­seur of the musky, un­mis­tak­able aroma of ot­ter spraint – sam­pled from the green­est, best-fer­tilised tufts of grass on stream banks – I was quite look­ing for­ward to a new ol­fac­tory ex­pe­ri­ence. The over­whelm­ing fragrance of the shed, how­ever, was that of Jeyes Fluid, my friend be­ing one of many house­hold­ers re­pelled by the al­ter­na­tive odour, redo­lent of vi­o­lets or not.

I did not have to go far on­line, in­deed, to find a blog com­plain­ing of “hav­ing to move down­stairs” to es­cape the pong of a pine-marten den in a roof space. So mixed, in­deed, are re­sponses to th­ese in­tru­sions that the Vin­cent Wildlife Trust has put a spe­cial leaflet on­line: The Pine Marten in Ire­land: A Guide for House­hold­ers. It could be pru­dent read­ing for peo­ple now re­turn­ing to their ru­ral hol­i­day houses.

The short­age of nat­u­ral den sites in Ire­land (notably in trees old enough to have big holes) has made houses and sheds at­trac­tive to fe­male martens seek­ing sea­sonal warmth and safety. They are a long-pro­tected species, and will aban­don their kits if dis­turbed.

The two or three young them­selves will want to play by night – martens are largely noc­tur­nal. So their noisy skit­ter­ing on bed­room ceil­ings can be un­wel­come. But from March to July, ac­tion to evict a fam­ily could bring prose­cu­tion un­der the Wildlife Act.

The Vin­cent trust read­ily ad­mits that martens “do not make good house guests” and urges proof­ing the house against in­va­sion. But the an­i­mals are su­perla­tive climbers and can squeeze through gaps as big as their head (5cm for fe­males).

A sec­ond leaflet, sup­ported by the Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice, ad­dresses more of the martens’ mis­be­haviours. How to Ex­clude Pine Martens from Game and Poul­try Pens de­scribes in de­tail elec­tric fenc­ing to pro­tect the gun clubs’ pheas­ant chicks and ways of mak­ing a hen­house marten­proof.

All this may stir ques­tions about what pine martens are “good for” and re­in­force the wilder con­cerns for new­born lambs and ba­bies left out in their prams. The preda­tory diet of this much-abused na­tive mam­mal in­cludes nei­ther (ex­cept, at times, bits of dead lamb) and em­braces even frogs, snails, bee­tles and black­ber­ries.

More help­fully to hu­mans, it is a con­trol on ro­dent pop­u­la­tions and its hunt­ing of rats and mice, bank vole and white-toothed shrew ex­tends even to grey squir­rels.

This, as re­cent Ir­ish re­search has shown, can help re­store num­bers of the na­tive red squir­rel. The red is lighter and more ag­ile, and can re­treat to the far ends of branches, while the big­ger grey also spends more time on the ground and is eas­ier to catch.

This study, car­ried out in Co Wick­low woods by Dr Emma Sheehy of the Univer­sity of Ab­erdeen, found the fur of grey squir­rels, but not of reds, in marten scats. It has had wide at­ten­tion in Bri­tain, where restora­tion of the marten in Scot­land, Wales and north­ern Eng­land and con­ser­va­tion of red squir­rels are pri­or­i­ties.

In Ire­land, mean­while, the re­search has been in­ten­sive, in­clud­ing ge­netic study of DNA from marten hairs left in sticky tubes baited with raw chicken. This helped the large-scale as­sess­ment of the marten pop­u­la­tion pub­lished last year by the Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice.

Led by Dr De­clan O’Ma­hony of North­ern Ire­land’s Agri-Food and Bio­sciences In­sti­tute, the re­port iden­ti­fied 134 in­di­vid­ual martens at sites spread across the is­land, with an av­er­age low den­sity of about one an­i­mal per square kilo­me­tre of for­est. Com­bin­ing this with other data, the to­tal pop­u­la­tion in Ire­land was es­ti­mated at 3,043.

This con­firmed the pine marten as a set­tled and sta­ble res­i­dent, but still one of the rarest mam­mals in Ire­land.

‘‘ The preda­tory diet of this much-abused na­tive mam­mal in­cludes nei­ther new­born lambs nor ba­bies left out in their prams

Pine marten: the smell of its scat is often de­scribed as like that of Parma vi­o­lets, ■ even by peo­ple without great ex­pe­ri­ence of the flower. IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MICHAEL VINEY

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