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Adaptable pine martens change diet in order to thrive

New research from Queen’s University Belfast, funded by wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), has revealed that pine martens are less fussy in terms of their diet than previously thought.

Native to the British Isles, pine martens were once one of our most abundant predators, before populations declined and they became a protected species in 1981. There are now only an estimated 3,043 pine martens in Ireland and 8,900 in Great Britain, with only around 100 thought to be living in England.

For this research, surveys were carried out in a variety of habitats across the pine martens’ range in Northern Ireland. Droppings were collected from various locations on a monthly basis, to give a detailed picture of exactly what pine martens were eating.

Pine marten images – credit Joshua Twinning

It appears that pine martens have a sweet tooth, as the most commonly consumed food was fruit, with rowan, blackberries and bilberries all on the menu, eaten in abundance during late summer/autumn. Pine martens also targeted songbirds, shrews, grey squirrels and rabbits during each species’ specific breeding season, with mice and insects staple foods throughout the year.

Joshua Twining, from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, who led the project, explains: “The results are quite fascinating; it’s clear that pine martens are not only true opportunistic omnivores, but they’re also highly adaptable, and unlike many other species, they can switch their diet depending on what’s available around them at any given time.”

Joshua continues: “Our findings are very exciting, as they start to explain the somewhat miraculous recovery of this species. Pine martens are starting to recover from a severe historical decline which resulted from the combined effects of widespread persecution in both Britain and Ireland, and habitat loss.”

Pine martens are an important part of the ecosystem. Not only do they disperse seeds throughout the environments they live in, but they can also play a role in managing invasive species such as grey squirrels which in turn helps to bring back native species, such as red squirrels. This small predator has an important role to play in returning our native ecosystems back to their natural order.

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