The pine marten (Martes martes) is a small carnivore belonging to the Mustelidae or Weasel family, meaning that its closest wild relatives in Ireland are the badger, otter, stoat and the introduced American mink. Although it is superficially similar to a domestic cat in size and appearance (its Irish name is cat crainn or “tree cat”), they are not closely related. Pine martens are excellent tree climbers and depend on woodland and scrub habitat, where they hunt for squirrels, mice, voles and small birds, and forage for berries in autumn. They are cat sized animals, with chocolate brown fur and a long tail, but their most distinctive feature is an orange or yellowish coloured chest patch. It is considered to be Ireland’s rarest native mammal and this, combined with its normally shy and elusive nature, means that pine martens are generally rarely seen by most people.
They became increasingly rare in much of Ireland up to the mid-twentieth century due to the gradual and near total deforestation of the country, hunting for its fur and poisoning by gamekeepers. Currently, the Irish pine marten population appears to be spreading from its strongholds in the west and other small pockets, and it is now present across much of Connacht and the midlands. It is much rarer in Ulster and Munster, although pine martens are present in Co. Waterford and across the River Suir in south Kilkenny. The Waterford population has been studied for a number of years by researchers at the Molecular Ecology Group in WIT, and this work is being continued as part of the MISE Project.
For a more detailed account of pine martens in Ireland, please see this article written by Declan O’Mahony for the Vincent Wildlife Trust in Ireland’s new website. The Vincent Wildlife Trust also have an interesting page dedicated to pine martens here.