Pine Martens Scotland

Written by Chris Thornton | 19th of August 2022
Pine Martens Scotland

To see a pine marten in Scotland is a rare occurrence indeed; once abundant in the deep forests, their numbers plummeted in the 19th century, mainly due to gamekeepers hunting them on sporting estates and massive demand for their pelts for the fur trade.

Read on to learn more about one of Scotland's most unique and elusive native animals.

What is a pine marten?

Pine martens (Martes martes) are small mammals native to Scotland, about the size of a cat, but being part of the Mustelidae family, they look more like polecats, weasels, ferrets and otters.

They have long bodies, round ears, and short legs but are much bigger than weasels. There is little difference in colouration between pine martens; they are covered in dark brown fur but look like they have a yellow/cream-coloured neckerchief over their throat and chest. Their fur is thicker and lighter in the winter months.

To help with balance, pine martens have a long bushy tail, perfect for their treetop escapades looking for bird's nests and the tasty eggs within them. Their large claws are perfect for propelling themselves up tree trunks - they make it look easy!

Males are about one-third bigger than females. Pine martens are mainly nocturnal, but it is possible to see them within the daylight hours in summer.

Pine marten kits

Adults mate between July and August, with a litter expected around April the following year. The only time you will hear a pine marten make noise is their shrill cat-like mating call.

Interestingly the fertilised egg does not enter the uterus for about seven months, allowing birth in the spring, instead of a less hospitable time of year.

Baby pine martens are known as kits, and litters of 3 to 5 kits are common each spring. They are born deaf and blind and have a coat of pale brown hair, which darkens with age. Kits will stay in the den for at least six weeks before venturing out into the outside world.

At 3 to 4 months old, kits will already be successful hunters, killing their own prey. Fully grown at six months, they will permanently leave the den and look to establish their own territory.

Where to see Pine Martens in Scotland
A young pine marten in the wild.

Pine marten stats and abilities

  • Length: 45cm, not including the 25cm of their tail.

  • Weight: 900g-1.7kg.

  • An average lifespan of up to 10 years.

  • Produce litters of 3 to 5 young.

  • Can jump up to four metres between tree branches.

  • Can land on their feet from heights of 20 metres.

What do pine martens eat?

Pine marten's diet includes birds, insects, and small rodents like mice and voles, but they can hunt larger animals such as rabbits. Although they love to hunt, they will also opportunistically eat rowan/bilberries, eggs and fungi.

Poultry farmers dislike pine martens as chickens and pheasants are often predated upon; they can fit through gaps in fencing as small as 4.5 cm. A pine martens bite is strong enough to decapitate a chicken completely! Sometimes pine martens can slaughter every chicken, not just one needed for survival.

It's possible that pine martens may be controlled where they are seriously affecting livestock.

Pine martens vs grey squirrels

The resurgence of pine martens in Scotland is having a positive effect on the endangered red squirrel. The invasive grey squirrel is bigger and slower than red squirrels and easy prey for pine martens.

There are as many as 2.5 million grey squirrels and only 140,000 red squirrels in the UK; perhaps the pine marten can redress the imbalance and give the red squirrel a fighting chance.

Grey squirrels often strip bark from a variety of trees, so thinning numbers could be beneficial for Scotland's forests too.

On the flip side, the already rare capercaillie bird is definitely on the menu for the guileful pine marten. Many believe capercaillie numbers will fall with the rise in pine martens.

Part of the weasel family
A young pine marten in the wild.

Where do pine martens live?

Yes, there is a clue in their name... Pine martens spend much of their time high in pine trees, looking for bird nests, but they can live in a variety of areas, including rocky hillsides.

In Scotland, they are more commonly found in northern and central Scotland, but mainly in the Scottish Highlands. There are some isolated pockets of pine marten in southern Scotland.

Some colonies of pine marten have been found on the islands of Mull and Skye.

Pine martens do not build nests or dens; they take over vacated badger setts, squirrel dreys, nest boxes or just find shelter within hollow trees, rock crevices or sheds in rural areas.

It is more common to see a pine marten in Scotland than in England, Wales or Ireland.

Pine Martens denning in buildings

With habitat fragmentation due to humans, natural den sites for pine martens are becoming less common, and they may resort to denning in buildings inhabited by humans, such as within roof space.

This can cause problems:

  • Young kits can be very noisy at night.

  • Hygiene issues and bad smells will come from droppings, urine and remains of prey.

  • Access holes may be enlarged by the adult coming and going.

It is illegal to try and move a pine marten den from your property; it requires a license from Scotland's Nature Agency. Removing kits from a den can cause the adult to abandon them so it's important this is handled by experts.

Purpose-built den boxes can be provided for pine martens as an alternative.

What is the pine marten population in Scotland?

The estimated population is thought to be around 3700 adults.

Are pine martens endangered in Scotland?

Although their status is not as critical in Scotland as it once was, they are still very rare. I have only seen a pine marten once in over 35 years of living in Scotland.

The Victorians during the 1800s and early 1900s were savage in their pursuit of pine marten fur for use in coats, robes and hats. Gamekeepers despised them for killing their livestock and would hunt them for sport but would also make a tidy side profit for the sale of the pelts, leading to a dramatic decline in pine marten numbers in Scotland.

Due to overhunting, pine martens are close to extinct in England and Wales, but the Pine Marten Recovery Project has reported success, with Scottish pine martens being successfully reintroduced in the summer of 2016. Limited numbers exist in Northern England.

Although they are endangered in the United Kingdom, the species worldwide have the conservation status of "least concern" and exist in greater numbers throughout most of Europe, Asia and even Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Are pine martens protected in Scotland?

Yes, pine martens have been protected by law since 1988. It is illegal to capture, kill, or injure a pine marten. It's possible to receive a fine of £5000 or six months in jail for killing a pine marten.

Do pine martens hibernate?

Pine martens do not hibernate through the winter; their thick fur keeps them warm even in snowy conditions.

Are pine martens friendly?

Pine martens will not be friendly to humans. Do not corner/capture one or try to touch it; they will give you a very nasty bite. Growling and huffing is a common defence mechanism for pine martens, basically saying "stay back".

Pine martens will not seek out humans and attack them, only as a last resort.

A cute but vicious pine marten.
They may look cute, but pine martens are vicious hunters.

Do pine martens make good pets?

No, they are wild animals and not domesticated. Even if you could domesticate one, they have very sharp claws (non-retractable) and possess a dangerous bite. They are most happy in their natural environment, not in a house.

What is the biggest threat to pine martens?

Humans are the biggest threat to pine martens due to:

  • Destruction of their habitats.

  • Killing them for nesting in homes.

  • Killing them for destroying livestock such as chickens.

  • Killing them for their fur.

However, they can also be prey animals to foxes, eagles and owls.

Pine marten at night.

Photo of a pine marten at night.

Where to see pine martens in Scotland

There is no easy way to see pine martens in the wild; they are so rare and elusive that even the experts find it hard to study them. Most of the time, only footprints, droppings and fur can be found.

However, you are more likely to see them in certain places than others. Here are a few places in Scotland where they have been spotted recently:

  • Abriachan Wood, Loch Ness

  • Geordie's Wood, Muckhart

  • Glen Sherup, Perthshire

  • Glen Quey, Perthshire

  • Ledmore & Migdale, Spinningdale Bonar Bridge

  • Galloway Forest Park, Dumfries and Galloway

I have heard of some B&B's in Scotland offering nightly viewings by putting out toast and jam; here are a few:

Here are a few of the dedicated pine marten hides in Scotland:

None of these places can offer a guaranteed pine martens visit, but I think your chances would be greatly increased.

My experience seeing a pine marten

My wife and I were lucky enough to see a pine marten directly outside our home near Buckie in 2019. At first, I thought it was a weasel when I caught a glimpse of it in our front garden; I walked slowly outside and saw it climbing on the neighbour's fence. It was as big or bigger than a cat, very fast and had amazing climbing skills.

It moved differently from any other animal I'd seen (floppy feet) and could climb tall trees in seconds; it was amazing. After some investigation, I realised it was a pine marten and felt very lucky to have seen it. Please see the short video below I captured.

Pine marten video

Pine marten near my home.

Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990

Pine martens are included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990. They are classified as a priority species within the UK biodiversity plan. If found guilty of harming a pine marten, you can receive six months in jail or a £5000 fine!

Conclusion

The pine marten is one of Scotland's rarest native mammals and is worthy of protection to ensure its continued survival and important contribution to biodiversity.

If you're interested in endangered or extinct animals in Scotland, please see my articles on wolvesbearsadders and newts.

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Comments:


Albert
5th of December 2022 @ 22:05:59

I feed pinemartens every night with peanut butter and peanut balls I have them on camera if you are interested ,I am 15 mins from Keith