Dooley (my canine chum) and I recently spent a fascinating day in a secret south Shropshire woodland, where we checked camera traps for evidence of the extremely elusive local pine martens.  Our guides were Stuart Edmonds of Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s Pine Marten Project and local naturalist David Pearce, who boosted the spirits of all involved when he photographed a wild pine marten in this very woodland back in July 2015.  Since then, Stuart and Dave have successfully deployed camera traps at many sites in an effort to keep track of the charmingly enigmatic Shropshire martens. However, the cameras and their batteries are not cheap, so funding is always a worry. Given that the project is run part-time with a heavy reliance on volunteers, it is remarkable how much it has achieved.

Save for occasional canopy-height calls of bullfinch, siskin, redpoll, nuthatch and a brambling (Dave is a skilful birder with remarkable hearing), the steep, north-facing woodland was calm and quiet as we clambered down to the first in a long, ragged line of camera traps set among the oak-dominated trees.  Stuart extracted the SD card and fed it to his laptop so that we could scan swiftly through the hundred or so 10-second video clips recorded since their last visit.  To any uninformed observer, we three men and a dog must have made an odd sight, squatting damply on the freshly fallen oak leaves and peering at the laptop screen to identify the mammalian ‘captures’: most abundant among the videos were grey squirrels, with wood mice (some could have been yellow-necks) in second place and the occasional fox and muntjac in joint third.

We repeated this operation at a dozen or more cameras, leaving me in awe of Stuart’s skills at species identification from the briefest of glimpses.  We viewed so many video clips in a short space of time that my memory soon became, literally, a digital blur; but I can recall some thrilling highlights: one camera focused on the gnarled base of an old dead tree that was a mustelid hotspot, with several visits by badgers, three records of a delicate stoat, and a brief early morning appearance by a chunky polecat just a few hours before our own visit (Dooley insisted he could still smell it, giving us a look that implied if only we recognised his scenting skills we would realise that camera traps were a waste of both time and money); other cameras seemed to be located in deer hotspots, where videos of the abundant muntjac (sometimes three at a time) heavily outnumbered the native roe deer, one of which posed close to the camera as if checking its immaculate eye make-up.

About halfway along the camera trap line, we hit the jackpot (and Dooley pretended he could smell our target species): a magnificent pine marten in winter pelage was filmed foraging among the leaf litter in the early hours of 23rd October 2018; as usual it was facing mainly away from the camera (typically the Shropshire martens seem keen to hide their distinctively patterned ‘bibs’ so as to prevent Stuart from identifying them); and just after the video started the animal was spooked by a noise to its right, causing it to look up suddenly and run up the trunk of a nearby oak tree.  On top of the excitement and relief that we had found what we were looking for, I was thrilled simply to be sitting at the very spot where an English pine marten had passed by less than four weeks ago.

Although this was the only pine marten that we recorded that day, over the past three years Stuart and Dave have gathered many video clips that confirm the species’ continuing presence in south Shropshire.  They have also amassed huge quantities of data on a range of other woodland mammals, some of which are tricky to detect by traditional methods; this is a valuable demonstration of just how much camera traps now contribute to our understanding of elusive species.  So, why not consider treating yourself or a loved-one to a camera trap for Christmas? I can guarantee that you will be pleasantly surprised by what it reveals!

If you want to learn more about the Shropshire Pine Marten Project, please visit its Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=shropshire%20pine%20marten%20project

And if you would like to donate to the project please visit

http://www.shropshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/pinemartenproject?fbclid=IwAR1kC0694uJ7RIXY7hh8STOH9o_S-AygmCR4AUmUWD2Syp2T5HWFVGh18cc

Johnny Birks

19/11/2018