Critically endangered pine martens could be reintroduced to south-west England after a 150-year absence.
A coalition of conservation organisations, including the National Trust, the Devon Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust, hope the nocturnal mammals can be released from the autumn of 2024.
They are working with Exmoor and Dartmoor National Park Authorities to identify two suitable sites for a release programme.
The Two Moors Pine Marten Project is now in discussions with residents, farmers, landowners and other land users to assess the impact of the plans on the surrounding environment and businesses.
Pine martens used to be among the most common mammals in Britain, but were pushed to the brink of extinction in England due to habitat loss and persecution.
In Victorian times, they were shot for sport, caught for their fur and hunted by gamekeepers, and disappeared from the Southwest in the 1880s.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the remaining pine martens in Great Britain were limited to the north-west highlands of Scotland and to small patches of territory in the northern highlands of England and Wales.
But a study published last year found that the south-west of England was ripe for a reintroduction programme, despite not having the same large blocks of forest as Scotland and Wales.
He found that the region’s low density of major roads, coupled with a network of forests and wooded valleys, often connected by river catchments, would provide enough habitat for the martens to thrive.
Sarah Bryan, chief executive of the Exmoor National Park Authority, said: “We are delighted to see the possibility of making these charismatic creatures part of Exmoor’s rich natural heritage once again.”
“The next step will be to talk to local people and those with direct experience with pine martens to determine if reintroduction is right for Exmoor and, if so, how we can work together to design a successful reintroduction programme.”
Pine martens are omnivores, feeding on whatever is available at the time of year, including voles, rabbits, mushrooms, berries, and small birds, helping to keep the forest ecosystem in balance.
Recent research has also found that they can boost efforts to save the native red squirrel by hunting their more abundant gray rivals.
Ed Parr Ferris, conservation manager at the Devon Wildlife Trust, said: “As communities rightly seek to plant more forests to address carbon and climate, it is vital that we also bring back wildlife and the wild processes that make those forests live and function properly.
“This can bring challenges and sometimes requires changes to the way we co-exist with nature, so we want to work with everyone affected over the next 18 months to understand how to do this sustainably – for martens, other animals. savages and people”.
Last week, a report from the Environment Agency exposed the near-catastrophic pressures facing UK wildlife in the face of habitat loss and global warming.
Britain is one of the most depleted nature countries in the world, with 41% of native species of fauna and flora declining in abundance since 1970, with 15% threatened with extinction.
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