Hide and seek: Watching them watching us

Natural England picture of pine martens.
Natural England picture of pine martens.
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It’s more than 20 years since the last evidence of pine martens in Yorkshire, but now Amy-Jane Beer reports on the work of two wildlife researchers which has rekindled hopes of a reappearance.

Despite birdsong, a promising gleam of sunshine and all the unmistakable signs of spring in the forest, today’s expedition feels like a ghost hunt. We’re looking for evidence of a creature so rare, and so elusive, no one can say for sure it exists in this part of the world. Plenty of people believe in Yorkshire pine martens – some even say they’ve seen one, but there has been no hard evidence since 1993.

James McConnell and Hannah Henshaw

James McConnell and Hannah Henshaw

The pine marten vies for the title of Britain’s most handsome wild animal but sadly it is also one of our rarest carnivores, second only to the Scottish wildcat. The species appeared to be extinct in England by the early 20th-century, mainly as a result of deforestation and persecution by gamekeepers. The picture is better in Scotland, where some nature reserves and visitor attractions almost guarantee sightings at feeding stations provisioned with meat, nuts and a special pine marten favourite – jam sandwiches.

Despite this resurgence north of the border, unequivocal proof of pine martens surviving anywhere in England in recent years can be counted on the fingers of one hand – the Yorkshire specimen in 1993, a photograph in Staffordshire in 2004, and scats testing positive for pine marten DNA in Northumberland and Cumbria in 2010 and 2011.

The species has never been officially recorded alive in Yorkshire. There have been sightings, but glimpses of an animal dashing across a road or leaping away in the half light of a forest are fallible. These quicksilver predators are almost magically elusive – favouring dense woodland, emerging only at dusk, and equipped with superb senses of smell and hearing – 
which mean they have little trouble detecting clumsy human approaches, and melting silently and invisibly into the shadows.

Today I’ve come to Silton Forest, on the northwest edge of the North York Moors, with James McConnell and Hannah Henshaw of non-profit social enterprise NatureSpy. NatureSpy was set up with the aim of engaging communities with local wildlife and green spaces, and promoting and conducting wildlife and conservation research.

There have been a number of reported pine marten sightings in the forests fringing the North York Moors over the last 20 years. None could be substantiated by hard evidence, but several had a sufficient ring of truth for the Forestry Commission to invest in nest boxes and hair tubes baited with hundreds of jam sandwiches. The tubes contain a sticky inner surface that retains hairs from passing animals, which can then be identified to species. But no pine marten hairs were collected. In 2010, the Vincent Wildlife Trust carried out an extensive programme of scat surveys across northern England, but found only badger, fox, dog and stoat DNA. But the trickle of sightings continued. VWT assesses all sightings reported to them and assigns an overall reliability rating. Intrigued by a handful of records from the North York Moors achieving high scores of seven, eight and nine out of 10, James and Hannah thought camera traps might be the answer. They identified a number of sightings hotspots and set about raising crowd-source funding to deploy motion sensitive trail cameras.

The first cameras were set up last summer at Ingleby Greenhow and Broughton Banks, and began recording a plethora of secretive wildlife – deer, foxes, badgers, stoats – and the occasional puzzled passer-by. Then, in August, James saw something else. Backlit against a cluttered background of trunks and fallen branches is the shape of a slim, leggy animal, with a straight, bushy tail, walking along a fallen log. At first glance, it looks very much like a pine marten – the shape of the tail and the humped hindquarters are characteristic. The picture was sent to VWT, where the limits of image enhancement were pushed in vain to try and gain more information. If it is a pine marten, it is only the second photograph of one in the wild in England ever taken. But as a silhouette, it still isn’t quite the unequivocal evidence everyone was hoping for. Could it be a cat? James thinks this is unlikely, given the location.

“We just can’t be 100 per cent sure, and because of that we had doubts about releasing the image. But the publicity has been very useful. After the picture went public, several people contacted us to say they had seen a pine marten – some of those possible records were years old.”

Coming so close has tightened resolve in the NatureSpy camp. This year more new cameras were deployed, including those we’re visiting today. Silton Forest would make fine pine marten habitat – there are pines of course, and plenty of prey – squirrels, rabbits, small mammals and birds, plus an abundance of rocky outcrops and tumbling drystone walls offering alternative shelter. There are pine marten nest boxes too – erected as part of an earlier effort to find this elusive creature.

The camera traps have been here three weeks, this time recording video as well as still images. The first one we come to is strapped to a tree by a small stream. Its glass eye faces another trunk some metres away on which is tied a small tin, from which wafts a ripely offensive stink. “It’s a smell lure,” explains James. “We started out using bait like honey, jam, and peanuts, but we just got hundreds of pictures of squirrels. So we switched to something that would attract carnivores, and that would last longer – these contain pilchard, salmon and sprats, so they smell pretty bad.”

The lure and the camera are taken down and James checks the activity log – there are 228 pictures. Normally, the memory card would be taken back to the office for checking but James has brought along a tablet for my benefit. The card is slotted in and a series of images appear on screen. We see the white smudge of a deer’s bottom, and the tail of a retreating fox. Some squirrels and pheasants too... but no pine marten. As we pack up and move on, I ask how NatureSpy got started and James explains that after graduating with wildlife biology degrees and finding job opportunities thin on the ground, he and Hannah realised they had to think differently.

“I’d being playing around with camera trapping for several years and I realised that because technology is still quite new, very few people have been doing it as long as I have. We initially planned to set up a small business offering camera hire and survey services, but soon realised it might work better as a sort of social enterprise with a commercial element but also a non-profit arm that enables us to apply for grants for particular projects.

“When the idea of the pine marten project came up we couldn’t afford to do it ourselves but thought it was interesting enough that other people might want to contribute. So we set up a crowd-funding web page and amazingly we’ve raised £1,500 to buy cameras.”

We arrive at the next spot indicated by James’ GPS unit, and begin casting about for the camera. James stops by a pair of fallen trunks. “I’m sure it was here,” he says, but after another few minutes of increasingly anxious searching, there is no sign of the camera or the smell lure. We’re well off the path, and the camera is camouflaged. This is the second time a NatureSpy camera has been stolen.

“I’m guessing its poachers,” says James. “There’s always the possibility of theft when you leave kit on public land.”

We continue – the mood dampened for a while, but thankfully the rest of the cameras are still in place and we’re cheered at the next one by a delightful set of deer images – a roebuck in velvety antlers and several does, entirely at ease. The rest of the cameras yield further enchanting footage of badgers, hares, more foxes, squirrels and a plethora of pheasants and smaller birds. We don’t find a pine marten, but there are plenty more places to look.

“We’re looking for something that is at best extremely rare, exceptionally wary and, with large territories of up to 30sq km for a single individual,” James reminds me. “It’s a real treasure hunt.”

With the Forestry Commission, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and the National Park Authority on side there is plenty that could be done to support a recovering pine marten population, if only we knew it existed. As the NatureSpy search gathers momentum and extends to more likely areas, let’s hope that the proof is only a matter of time.

• To help fund the Yorkshire Pine Marten Project, visit www.naturespy.org. Or, if you think you might have seen a pine marten please contact VWT www.vwt.org.uk

Twitter @AmyJaneBeer