In Search of the Enigmatic Pine Marten and Scottish Wildcat...
TETRIX Ecology recently attended a two-day pine marten and Scottish wildcat workshop in Birnam and Dunkeld. The course was hosted by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) and was presented by Adrian Davis of Wild Outdoors (www.wildoutdoors.club); an outdoor activity business based in Perthshire. Although the Scottish pine marten population is continuing to recover, the news isn’t so good for the wildcat, which continues to decline to a worryingly low level – estimated to be in the region of 100-300 individuals.
With the sobering thought of near-extinction of our only native cat species, the morning of our first day covered a comprehensive background to pine marten and wildcat biology (for those delegates with limited or no previous background), which was then followed by a detailed insight into survey techniques for both species. Adrian, who has been undertaking surveys of both species for many years, was a veritable mine of information, and it was fantastic to directly benefit from his survey experience.
After lunch and with the necessary theory under our belts, we headed out into the countryside to the north of Birnam and Dunkeld. With his in-depth knowledge of the local area, Adrian took us to an area of long-established mixed woodland where he knew there had been previous records of pine marten. Our first location took us to a rocky outcrop above a small lochan, which offered ideal den habitat for pine marten. The outcrop contained many hidden pockets and crevices; unfortunately though we didn’t uncover any recent evidence of pine marten!
Our next location took us to the south of the lochan and into the woodland itself, where we scrambled around under numerous red squirrel drays, searching the roots of fallen trees for den sites, prints and scat. After our search, Adrian also took the opportunity to demonstrate the principals of camera trapping using an example he'd set out in the field the previous month. Although we didn’t expect to capture any images of pine marten ad wildcat, owing to the fact this was a test location specifically setup for the training event, we were treated to wonderful images of fox and roe deer!
After a hearty Scottish breakfast (a rare treat these days) our second day of the course dawn bright and clear as we headed off for prime pine marten and wildcat territory around the shores of Loch Rannoch, in particular, the Black Wood of Rannoch. The Black Wood of Rannoch is one of a few relics of ancient Caledonian woodland left in Scotland and is truly a magical place to visit. The undulating terrain of the woodland made for a challenging search, especially with the large number of shallow pools and flushes dotted throughout the woodland; however, we rose to the task and although we didn’t record any evidence of either pine marten or wildcat, we were rewarded by an encounter with active wood ants nests.
Not being put off, we decided to move our search to the Forest Commission car park and campsite, which is located along the south-eastern shores of the loch. After searching the airy foundations of the commission buildings, we finally hit the jackpot and were rewarded by our first pine marten scat of the day, which we found along a path to the west of the campsite. The fact we found scat at this location just goes to show how tolerant pine martens are to the presence of humans, which isn’t a trait shared by the Scottish wildcat - although records of wildcat have been returned for some areas of the countryside that are very close to human habitation!
Although we didn’t encounter any evidence of Scottish wildcat during the two day event, we’re not easily put off and are looking forward to becoming more involved in wildcat monitoring throughout the remainder of 2017 and beyond, so we can do our bit to help conserve the Scottish wildcat for future generations.
For those who are interested, Scottish Wildcat Action’s web site (www.wildcataction.org) provides details on volunteering opportunities, in addition to a chance to donate money help fund the organisations important research.
Photo Credits: TETRIX Ecology & Pixaby (User: 422737)