Gordon Forrest, Mervyn Needham and Johnny Birks

Dead pine marten in Chaddesley Wood Photo GordenForrest

On 15th June 2002 a dead pine marten Martes martes was found and photographed by one of us (GF) on a footpath on the edge of Chaddesley Woods National Nature Reserve. Apparently the corpse had been seen at the same location the previous day by Mr. and Mrs. Kelly, local dog-walkers. GF reported the corpse to MN, who put it in a refuse bag on 15th June and placed it nearby for later collection. Frustratingly, 90 minutes later the bag containing the corpse had disappeared and could not be found despite extensive searching and enquiries over the subsequent few days. Thankfully GF's photographs were processed safely, and these remain as valuable evidence to confirm that it undoubtedly was a pine marten. Finally, on 14th July 2002, after further searching MN found the corpse (still in its bag that had, apparently, been thrown into thick cover by someone) a few metres away. Having lain in the plastic bag for some 29 days in mid-summer, putrefaction was well advanced and most of the soft tissues had been consumed.

There are reasons for regarding this as a most unusual record that should be treated with appropriate caution. Firstly, although The Vincent Wildlife Trust has gathered sparse but convincing evidence of pine martens surviving in parts of Wales and northern England at the turn of the millenium, there has been no such evidence from Worcestershire (or adjacent areas) since a report of the species observed by George Wright (a gamekeeper) on the Lickey Hills in the period 1897-1907. Even this record, uncovered by T.J. Pickvance (1958) during his survey of West Midland mammals, derives from a time when other authorities regarded the pine marten as already extinct in the Midlands. Currently, the nearest cluster of convincing records of pine martens lies on the Welsh border, some 50-60km to the West of Chaddesley Woods. Whilst this should not persuade us to rule out a natural origin for the Chaddesley animal (because pine martens are capable of dispersing huge distances), under the circumstances we feel especially obliged to consider possible alternative explanations. For example, could the animal be derived from a recent escape or release from captivity? Or could the corpse have been 'planted' for some bizarre reason? We have made enquiries among our local contacts, and to date none has admitted any knowledge of an escape or release that might explain the record.

There are elements of the Chaddesley marten's appearance, visible in GF's photographs, that raise suspicion. We showed electronic or printed versions of the main image to several naturalists familiar with pine martens (including three with experience of captive martens) in order to canvas their opinions of the record. A notable fact to emerge from this consultation was that the animal appears to be in pelage typical of late winter rather than mid-summer. In Britain pine martens tend to start moulting in April, shedding their fluffy mid-brown winter coat by the end of May so that they typically appear slim and dark in their short summer coat by mid-June. At this time the Chaddesley animal clearly retains most of its winter coat, and shows no sign of the dark summer fur on its head where the spring moult starts. The observation that the Chaddesley animal's pelage is inconsistent with its mid-June discovery raises questions about when and where it actually died. In the experience of those who have kept martens in captivity, some very old animals may moult extremely late. However, subsequent examination of the Chaddesley animal's dentition does not suggest a great age, so this explanation for the unusual pelage state seems unlikely.

Other observations prompted by the examination of GF's photographs include a suggestion that the pine marten's claws (visible best on its forefeet) appeared rather long for a wild animal (implying that it might possibly have lived in captivity); another suggestion, prompted by a line in the animal's fur visible in the belly area, is that the animal may have died in a snare. However, these observations must be regarded as speculative.

Regrettably the corpse is no longer in a state to permit some of the analyses that might help us to draw conclusions about its cause of death and likely origin. Nevertheless, it should be possible to extract DNA from the specimen in order to establish whether it has affinities with any of the genetic groupings recently identified among pine martens from different parts of Europe (Kyle et al., in press). This might indicate whether, for example, the animal might have had a Scottish origin or be derived from captive stock from another part of Europe (several of the pine martens currently in captivity in Britain are from Czech stock). The Vincent Wildlife Trust intends to undertake this work at some stage in the future.

There is one piece of evidence that supports the view that the pine marten might have lived and died locally. This concerns an earlier live sighting in Chaddesley Woods by Mrs. Eileen Kelly that has to be considered seriously in the light of the current record. Mrs. Kelly reports seeing "a long dark brown animal with a long tail and gold chest" running across a path in summer 2000. She is convinced it was a pine marten.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust welcomes reports of wild pine martens from England and Wales ('phone 01531 636441; email johnnybirks@vwt.org.uk).

KYLE C.J., DAVISON, A. AND STROBECK, C. (in press). The genetic structure of European pine martens (Martes martes), and evidence for introgression with M. americana in England . Conservation Genetics.

PICKVANCE, T.J. (1958). A note on the pine marten (Martes martes) in Worcestershire. Zoological Society of London. Vol. 131. p. 326-327.

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