Nature far from what it once was in this country, with the influence of man present throughout. As well as woodland clearance for agriculture, sheep grazing the uplands are responsible for some of our most iconic landscapes, and many heather moors are the result of management for grouse hunting. What are we as conservationists trying to protect in the UK; certainly not natural habitats?
Many carnivores have been hunted to extinction, including lynx (around AD 400), the Brown Bear (close to Norman times) and wolves, which survived until about 1500. Pine marten numbers have been decimated by both loss of habitat and persecution by gamekeepers. With a lack of natural predators herbivores have much larger populations than would occur naturally. Both Roe and Red deer, for example, are at their largest populations ever. The situation is also complicated by human introductions such as rabbits (either the Romans or Normans) and grey squirrels (as recently as Victorian times) and escapes from captivity, including mink and wild boar. And before I forget, there are diseases imported via international trade, three of which have had or are having a devastating effect on our woodlands: Dutch Elm Disease (imported with timber from Canada, despite its name), Ash Dieback Disease (tree nursery stock) and Phytophthora ramorum, which is killing millions of larch trees, after being imported with garden shrubs.
This all presents many challenges for forestry and woodland management. Deer and rabbits just love to munch young trees, and grey squirrels are notorious for stripping bark on older trees. At Holford we are looking at erecting a deer fence to protect some of our woodland, while at Treragin I have operated a Kania trap to keep down the numbers of grey squirrels. But sometimes it seems like trying to act as King Canute stopping the tide coming in!
I therefore really enjoyed a recent article about pine martens, written by George Monbiot. The article refers to an Irish study which shows that a spread of pine martens correlates with a decrease in grey squirrels and also an increase in red squirrels. The theory is that the reds, being smaller, can escape the pine marten on the ends of branches, whereas the greys, being heavier, fall off and become vulnerable to providing the next meal for a pine marten. More power to the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project?
So here we have a possible natural solution to a big problem that also helps another of our rarer mammals! No doubt it will require a lot of research and monitoring before anything happens on the ground, but I am looking forward to, hopefully, one day being able to train my binoculars on a wild pine marten and even a few red squirrels……………..
Acknowledgement: Pine marten and red squirrel photos by Wildstock.