It may seem especially necessary, in dark times, to count the victories. So when a marten was recently sighted in London for the first time in 100 years, the news felt small but momentous. A “wealth of martens” is even the collective name of the species.
For too long, Britain has been impoverished by the loss of this magical, cunning, cat-like creature that leaps between trees as easily as a sylph. In the Mesolithic era the species was among the most common carnivores in Britain, but hunting and deforestation have decimated its range; by 1915, pine martens survived only in the remotest reaches of the UK. Today, however, they are tentatively expanding again in England and Wales.
On Thursday, September 8, it was announced that HogWatch camera trap footage he had caught the animal’s bright, frightened eyes in a forest in Kingston-upon-Thames. The researchers, who have been using cameras to monitor London’s hedgehog populations since 2016, were shocked to see his elusive face. “As we become a more urban population, it’s exciting to see us able to co-exist again,” said Dr Robin Freeman of the Zoological Society of London.
The sighting has also not been without controversy. And the marten’s return raises questions about what relationship to nature Britain is ready to have. Do we want a country brimming with long-lost biodiversity, or do we yearn for the control traps of the Victorian era?
The tension stems from the fact that Kingston is a long way from the marten’s closest known stronghold in Hampshire. Seventy miles is a considerable distance for a small creature (40-50 cm long) to travel. Perhaps this is not a natural recolonization at all, some have speculated, but an unofficial “rogue release”?
With British wildlife in such a devastated condition, it is perhaps not surprising that some nature lovers are taking matters into their own hands: 15 per cent of UK species are threatened with extinction, according to a report. of parliamentarians, however, government funding was reduced by 30 percent. from 2010 to 2020. So a small number of individuals are now secretly releasing threatened species, from beavers to turtledoves, butterflies and polecats, into new habitats.
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The phenomenon is controversial. There are guidelines from the International Union for Conservation of Nature on how to safely reintroduce a species to a new location, conservationists say. These include considerations such as the safety of a new habitat, the sufficiency of its food sources, and the ease with which it can be monitored.
In addition, there is the human element to consider, as the return of species once lost could spark a backlash. In the case of beavers, British farmers will now be able to shoot at populations whose dams they believe threaten their crops. Opinion on the return of apex predators like lynx or wolves is even more divided.
“The preference with any introduction or translocation is that it be done in a properly coordinated and well thought out way,” says Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain. Official marten release projects are good examples, he notes, such as the one carried out in the Forest of Dean by the Vincent Wildlife Trust.
That said, the marten seen in London may have come of its own volition from the New Forest, adds Driver. He recalls a tagged male who once walked all the way from Mid Wales to the Peak District in a “very short” period of time, probably in the process of “cherchez la femme”.
Regardless of its origin, perhaps the overriding message brought by the latest newcomer to the city is that there is still time to shed the disastrous legacy of the past. Where once society privileged hunting and fur over protection from supposed vermin, we are slowly realizing that the recovery of this enigmatic species is something to be treasured.
Author Philip Pullman turns the marten into the sedentary form of his heroine Lyra’s demon, Pantalimon, in the His dark materials The trilogy has arguably helped here. As is the discovery that martens are aiding the recovery of the endangered red squirrel (which, as a native species, is better adapted to evade predation than the non-native gray).
Of course, there is still much work to be done if an ecologically rich and abundant Britain is to be restored. Over the last 70 years, half of the remaining ancient forest fragments have been lost and disconnected, making it difficult for all species to re-establish themselves. And the prime minister’s decision last week to remove Zac Goldsmith, an eco-minded Conservative peer, from his post as environment minister bodes ill for wildlife-friendly politics.
But the latest sighting of the fiercely shy and inspiringly resilient marten offers a glimmer of hope that such a future is still possible. We should take advantage of it.
[See also: Mapped: UK fracking licences could impact one in four Tory constituencies]