Sep 02

PRESS RELEASE: Pine martens mostly vegetarian – citizen scientists in Laois bust the myths

Whilst some media outlets have chosen to portray one of Ireland’s rarest and elusive wild mammals as a blood thirsty, lamb murdering tyrant, work is currently underway in the Midlands to learn more about these forest-dwelling creatures and dispel the myths and hysteria that has surrounded the pine marten over the last number of months.
The Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) Laois Offaly Branch has joined forces with volunteers from the Abbeyleix Bog Project, BirdWatch Ireland Laois Branch and mammal expert Denise O’Meara from Waterford Institute of Technology to conduct mammal research at the Abbeyleix Bog, Co, Laois.
The pine marten is a small cat-sized mammal related to badgers, stoats and otters and which is native to Ireland. Dietary studies in Ireland have shown that their diet is mostly plant-based with fruits, nuts and berries forming a significant proportion of their food. Pine martens also eat small mammals like field mice, bank voles, shrews, and the occasional squirrel. Birds and insects can also form part of the diet if the opportunity arises. Pine martens in Ireland have adapted to live on a more plant-based diet relative to their European counterparts where there are greater numbers of small mammal species present. Pine marten are mostly active at night and very shy so a combination of scat (faeces) and hair tube surveys are used to collect evidence of these beautiful animals. Pine martens are small animals and pose no threat to humans or livestock.
The survey currently taking place at Abbeyleix Bog involves the use of baited hair-traps placed around the site to collect hair samples for DNA analysis . The hair-trap consists of a piece of a plastic pipe tied vertically to a tree trunk. The inquisitive pine marten reaches inside the tube to remove the bait, and when doing so inadvertently deposits a hair sample on a sticky patch placed inside the tube. The tubes are checked weekly by the team of citizen scientists and hair samples are removed and brought to Waterford Institute of Technology for DNA analysis to reveal the species, sex and individual animal. This will allow the team to establish the number of individual pine martens that call Abbeyleix Bog home. The nature of this partnership involving cross organisational cooperation is very much key to its success. The IWT is calling for more similar cooperative community based projects to be established and resourced in an effort to enhance our knowledge of native species. This data can be used to dispel fears and myths and which will strengthen the conservation of wildlife and wild places in the Irish countryside.
Ricky Whelan of the IWT Laois/Offaly branch says “it’s important that we counter the myths and sensationalism that has appeared in the media so that we can protect pine martens. They’re an amazing part of our natural heritage and a good news conservation story.”
The work is part of a project made possible with a small grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Apart from establishing a baseline understanding of the various mammal populations associated with almost 300 hectares of natural habitat, the project aims to build capacity amongst local conservation volunteers to participate in citizen science based surveying and monitoring of mammals. END
CONTACT:  Ricky Whelan – IWT Laois/Offaly Branch Chairman – 085 7832545 for further details.  
Editors Notes: The Irish Wildlife Trust was founded in 1979 as a charitable conservation body. We provide the public with information about wildlife, run education and training programs like SAC Watch and the Badger Schools Programme, carry out habitat and species surveys like the IWT National Newt Survey, campaign and lobby around biodiversity issues, restore natural habitats, consult with industry, agriculture and Local Authorities to maintain our natural heritage and contribute to national and international forums for the protection of biodiversity. The IWT is a nationwide organisation with a strong membership base, staff and Board of Directors, with branches in Dublin, Cavan, Longford/Westmeath, Galway, Kerry, Laois/Offaly, Waterford and Cork.