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An unlikely ally

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

In the constant battle of survival that dominates the natural world an unlikely ally has come to the aid of the red squirrel - the pine marten. Pine martens are native to the UK and most of Europe, hunting both on the ground and in the trees. However, due to extensive woodland clearance and human persecution, the range of the pine marten has been dramatically reduced. Apart from small populations in Wales and northern England, the Scottish Highlands is their last real stronghold in the UK.

How does this relate to red squirrel conservation? A recent study in Ireland has shown that the range of the grey squirrel has significantly retracted as pine martens have recolonised their former territories. To put it simply, pine martens love to snack on grey squirrels and as these species did not evolve together, grey squirrels can do little to escape this onslaught. Red squirrels, on the other hand, did co-evolve with pine martens and have a simple adaption to deal with them; they are small and light and are able to escape pine martens by running to the very end of small branches where they can’t be followed. Grey squirrels are too heavy to employ this tactic and therefore are easy prey for the pine marten. With grey squirrels being pushed back, red squirrels are free to recolonise their former ranges.

What if pine martens were re-introduced? The growth of pine marten populations would result in the increase of red squirrel populations which could combat the problem of grey squirrels in the UK.


















Image: Toivo Toivanen and Tiina Toppila

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