An Assynt Pine Marten and Louping Ill

September 26th 2018

The story of this young pine marten begins on 16th May 2018 when I was contacted about a Pine Marten, Martes martes, in the roof of a local holiday chalet.  It was apparently waking up the guests at night. The guests reported that it sounded “like a dog with slippers on” and it was also “screeching”.

The owners wanted help to ‘evict’ it and stop it getting back in again so I visited the site. The marten had obviously been climbing on to the roof and squeezing through a small hole near a vent. However, when I climbed into the loft I saw not just the adult but at least three small kits. The mother immediately took them in her mouth, one at a time, to a corner of the roof space and out of sight; there was no way I was ever going to catch them. The owner tried leaving a light on in the loft space and playing a radio to see if that would encourage the mother to move her young but to no avail. By now the owners realised they would have to wait until the martens were old enough to leave themselves. Eventually they did.

It was around the 16thJune that a local couple living only 600m away from the chalet, reported seeing pine martens visiting their garden with at least two kits. This was later confirmed to be three youngsters. They were using an artificial pine marten breeding den box put up by myself several years ago in the garden as a temporary den. The couple would see the pine martens “collect food we had put out, and then run back to the tree and on to the top of the den box”. For several weeks the three youngsters would arrive, run around together, feed on the food left out and then end up on and in the box. At this stage all three kits were behaving totally normal.

Then on 9thAugust at 5pm I got a message about a young pine marten acting very strange. It seemed to have an injured back leg, but it was also trembling uncontrollably and kept going around in circles and putting its nose into the ground. It appeared to be having a fit. The next morning on the 10thAugust, at 8.30am I got another message on my phone. This time from a guest near the original chalet. She reported having a “tame pine marten” at her front door in a bad state, trembling and unsteady on its legs. She was feeding it some sausage meat she had and it was eating it from her fingers.

I now decided to collect the marten and take it home for examination. There was no apparent injury to its leg and, indeed, I could see nothing physically wrong with it. Although I did not specifically look for them, it did not seem to have any obvious tick burden.

It was confined to a small part of my garden and, although it did not try to escape, it became more relaxed and ran with ease around the garden. We offered it a wide range of food and it fed itself voraciously on blueberries, raw mince and sultanas.

I was now in correspondence with the SSPCA and we agreed, that if it continued to improve, I should let it go. However, after 24 hours of apparent normality, on the evening of 11thAugust it started shivering, was depressed and having problems with its right front leg and general co-ordination. It would put its head down into the grass apparently unable or unwilling to lift it. It stopped eating. The next morning, I drove the marten to Inverness SSPCA and together we took it to the Inshes Veterinary Centre. By this time the poor animal was trembling violently and uncontrollably. They gave it a rehydrating injection but after several hours it was euthanased by the vet.

A post mortem was carried out by SAC Consulting Veterinary Services at Drummond Hill, Inverness. It was confirmed as a juvenile female and 1.1kg in weight; which is considered lean-moderate. The initial post mortem showed that the lungs were blotchy and darkened in colour and the brain was showing signs of swelling but discovered no definitive cause of death. However, a further neuropathology report confirmed that the encephalitis in the brain was due to a severe neurotropic viral infection. The detection of louping ill virus RNA in the brain of this animal confirmed the diagnosis of Louping ill.

This virus is transmitted by infected ticks but I cannot find any reports of mustelids being affected by louping ill. Louping ill is a tick-transmitted viral disease primarily affecting sheep but has been recorded in cattle, horses, dogs, mountain hare and red grouse. There is no treatment and infection is often fatal.

However, as far as I am aware the pine marten’s siblings are doing well

Andy Summers

Highlife Highland Ranger Service






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