Seeing a pine marten in our garden at Baddidarach at 8:30 am one July morning was extremely exciting – it was only the second we had ever seen, and the first one we had ever seen in our garden. The sighting encouraged us to re-try a wildlife camera that we had bought several months earlier, but which we had never managed to get to work properly. We set up a wooden stake, spread with jam and peanut butter, a short distance from a tree trunk to which the camera was strapped, and then left the whole set up overnight. Sure enough, we recorded nocturnal visitors straightaway – but they turned out to be a pair of badgers! They visited several nights in a row, but eventually, we were also visited by a pine marten (Photo 1). We shared the photos that our camera had recorded with Andy Summers and David Haines of the Assynt Field Club.
In Andy’s reply he asked if we would be interested in trying a pine marten hair trap in our garden. We learned there was a research project underway by the University of Aberdeen to study the genetic structure and diversity of the Scottish and Irish pine marten population by collecting hair samples and analysing their DNA (DNA was also being obtained from tissue samples from road kill, and scat). They particularly wanted samples from the Scottish Highlands as there was a shortage of DNA data for this region.
We were keen to help, and very soon had a hair trap on loan, which we set up in the garden. We then added the facility of monitoring the trap with our wildlife camera. Hopefully the following pictures of the trap and text will explain how it works. Basically, some food attractive to a pine marten is placed deep inside the box near the wire mesh, the animal enters to reach the food and has to reverse out, during which one end of the spring becomes detached from an outward facing hook, contracts and traps some of the animal’s hair between its coils.
Initial experience was both good and bad. We had regular nocturnal visits by the badger pair and a pine marten, and some bait was taken, but the spring which was meant to capture the hair samples steadfastly refused to operate as intended. Various minor modifications were made to the detachable spring attachment hook, but still no success, even with a chicken egg as bait (plus the usual peanut butter, jam and bread coated in honey). By placing the bait deep inside the box badger hair should not be collected as they are too big to enter the box and the spring can only detach and trap hair when an animal reverses out of the box, due to the outward facing detachable hook.
This continued on a nightly basis for about 4 weeks, during which time the trap was located on the ground. In desperation we then tried mounting the box in a tree, and again rigged up the wildlife camera to record events. Straightaway we had success with a pine marten visiting the box and dislodging the spring and leaving 2 strands of hair behind. All this was recorded by the camera (Photos 2 and 3). Interestingly the trap was sprung at approx. 9-30pm whilst it was still fairly light (14th August). On average we found that the pine marten visited our garden generally between about 10 pm and midnight.
The hair samples were collected as carefully as possible to avoid contaminating them and were put in a sterile container and then stored in the kitchen freezer until we posted them off to the University of Aberdeen.
We now have our fingers tightly crossed in the hope that our samples will be usable and that the DNA of “our” pine marten can be assessed relative to the rest of the Scottish population.
Chris and Fran Barley