What do pine martens look like?

Pine Martens

By Donald Riddell, Director, Highland Safaris

In response to several requests for information about pine martens, here is our expert opinion on the agile, tree-climbing mammal that is once again becoming more widespread in Scotland.

What do pine martens look like?

Plush silky fur Martes martes

Belonging to the mustelid family, which includes mink, otter, badger, wolverine and weasel, the European pine marten (Martes martes) is native to northern Europe. With plush, silky fur – which grows longer and silkier during the winter months - ranging in colour from light to chocolate brown, they sport a creamy yellow throat ‘bib’. Their small, rounded ears are highly sensitive and they are the only member of the weasel family to have semi-retractable claws, which enable them to climb and cling to tree branches. The male is slightly larger than the female, on average weighing around 1.5kg (the equivalent of three bags of sugar) to 2kg. A pine marten’s body is around 50cm long, with a bushy tail stretching a further 25cm. An adult pine marten can be bigger than most domestic cats.

Where to look for pine martens

As a result of widespread decline in the 19th century – due to the clearance of native woodlands, trapping for fur, and gamekeepers controlling numbers – by 1915 pine martens existed only in remote pockets in the north-west Highlands. However, they have since spread into Sutherland and Caithness, and can also be found in Moray, Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, Tayside and Stirlingshire, as well as the Kintyre and Cowal peninsulas. They are occasionally spotted on Highland Safaris land, although more often than not we find their droppings, which are quite distinctive and often have berries in them.

When and what to look for

You can see pine martens year round, but as with much wildlife, you are more likely to see signs of a pine marten than the animal itself. They are crepuscular creatures, which means they are mainly active at dusk and night. Naturally shy, the pine marten tends to be scattered in small numbers, making them tricky to spot. Territorial animals – with territories of 5-15 square kilometres for females and as much as double that for males - they mark their ground by leaving droppings in particular locations.

What habitat do pine martens prefer?

The elusive pine marten prefers native woodlands with plenty of cover, although it can also survive in conifer plantations and on rocky hillsides. They feed on small rodents, birds, eggs, insects and fruit, and can be problematic for red squirrels as they are particularly agile in trees and much more ferocious. They can also be a problem for any farmer with hen houses.

During the mating season, pine martens make shrill, cat-like calls. In the spring, they have litters of 3-5 young, which are ready to go it alone by the time summer comes round and can live up to ten years.

Although they are occasionally preyed upon by golden eagles and foxes, humans are the greatest threat to pine martens. In the UK, pine martens and their dens are offered full protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the Environmental Protection Act.

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