A project is under way to find out more about the reclusive pine marten population in the region - if indeed there is one at all. Frances Griss reports

NOTHING pleases naturalists more than stories of secretive creatures spotted in out of the way places when they are not supposed to be there.

For decades there have been reports from the North-East of one of the most elusive of our mammals, the pine marten, but none have been confirmed.

Now a national wildlife charity is employing a full-time researcher to see if they can pin down the stories and confirm that this beautiful but enigmatic predator is living in the region.

The Northern Echo: SIGHTING: Are pine martens making their homes in the region? Picture: ROBERT CRUICKSHANKS

SIGHTING: Are pine martens making their homes in the region? Picture: Robert Cruickshanks

The Vincent Wildlife Trust has been working to re-establish pine martens across the whole country, where they were once much more numerous, including a re-introduction programme in Wales.

Lizzie Croose, mustelid conservation officer for the Vincent Wildlife Trust, says: “ Originally the pine marten was widespread all over Britain, they would have been in every single county.

Yorkshire was one of the places where they held on for the longest when they declined. They held on where habitat was better or persecution less; the Yorkshire Moors, the Lake District, the Cheviot Hills. The last confirmed record for Yorkshire was in 1994, an animal killed in a fox snare.

“We have had sightings reported by people who know what they are talking about but the question of whether they are still in Yorkshire is a tricky one. We don’t know for sure is probably the short answer.”

Pine Martens are much more numerous in Scotland and the hope is that animals from there will move south into the woodlands of Northumberland and the Lake District to re-colonise the north of England naturally. The new officer will be concentrating their efforts in that border country looking for signs that they are making the move.

Lizzie adds: “We have some funding as part of a programme called Back from the Brink, a national species recovery programme. It is working with lots of organisations and encouraging recovery of endangered species.”

This particular funding will allow someone to spend all their time collecting information about animals in the border area and helping them establish themselves.

She says: “The aim of the project is, now that they are in the Scottish borders, to monitor and ensure that over time they start moving into Northumberland and Cumbria. It’s about monitoring that recovery, seeing if they have got over the border and paving the way with landowners, putting up nesting boxes.”

If detailed survey work shows that pine martens are still not moving into England it may be possible to repeat the successful re-introduction which has already happened in Wales. There two groups of animals, 39 in total, were moved to the principality from Scotland, last year and the year before. Already the first animals to be released have bred and the biologists are waiting to see if the second group have been equally successful and this spring has produced more youngsters.

Pine martens are a larger member of the weasel family which was once common across the British Isles but has, like so many species, suffered from the double misfortune of persecution and loss of habitat. By the mid-20th Century it was gone from most of England and was only hanging on in the less-populated parts of Scotland. They are around two feet long and one third of their body length is a bushy tail. A beautiful chocolate brown body contrasts with a creamy coloured chest. They prefer to live in mixed woodland and climb well but also hunt on the ground. They live in holes of all kinds or in old bird or squirrel nests and have several such dens in their territory.

When scientists are looking for signs of pine marten they search in the same way they do for otters and other secretive species, by searching for droppings. Even though the droppings are left in prominent places to communicate with other individuals living in adjoining territories, this is still only an effective method in places such as Scotland, where numbers are higher.

Camera traps and hair sampling tubes are other methods but again they are not effective in areas where populations are very low simply because the chance of actually stumbling across the path of an animal is so unlikely.

Information on populations is so sparse that reliable records are 20 years old, such as two dead animals which were found in Kielder Forest in Northumberland in the 1990s.

Gordon Simpson, a County Durham naturalist who spent his career working in the Forestry Commission, in areas where pine martens would hang on if they survived anywhere, knows of several reliable sightings but not in recent years.

He has stories from the 1960s and 70s from North Yorkshire and Cleveland, and even the Yorkshire Wolds, and from a few years later further north in County Durham.

“In about 1980 I was driving in icy weather at the north end of Hamsterley Forest,” he says. “I saw an animal and I can’t think what else it could have been but because the road was sheet ice I was concentrating a bit on that.”

All the sightings are similar, glimpses with a hint of uncertainty about them. If all goes well the Vincent Wildlife Trust and its new officer will tie down some hard evidence and the coming decades could see stories of pine marten sightings move from the realms of myth and legend to become a regular feature of our regional wildlife.