Friday, 26 June 2015

Squirrels, Pine Martens and Wildcats…

The Howe of Cromar is thought to be a relative stronghold for Red Squirrels, with no Grey Squirrels seen for some time.

However, the American grey is making ground nearby with significant populations to the south and east, and with sightings reported as nearby as Aboyne and Banchory, monitoring Red Squirrel populations in our study areas around Tarland is important. This was started in April by a MSc student from Imperial College London, Lydia Murphy.

The area hasn’t been formally surveyed to our knowledge so exactly where the squirrels are and how many of them there may be, is uncertain, so Lydia is trying to survey all blocks of woodland in the MacRobert Trust and Auchnerran areas to find out.
Similarly Pine Marten are currently increasing in range and number across Scotland, but their status in The Howe is uncertain. Fortunately for Lydia, Pine Marten share similar habitats to squirrels so it’s not too difficult to include them in the same project! However, whereas Red Squirrels (and greys for that matter) can be surveyed by simply looking for them, Pine Marten are more of a challenge because they are largely nocturnal and usually very secretive.

So for this species Lydia has constructed and deployed hair traps, which entice the animals into a wooden tunnel with peanut butter but which results in them leaving a little hair behind (hopefully!), and track-recording tunnels, which record footprints of any animal running through a plastic tunnel. We have also used a small number of trail cameras to try to find these animals and get some nice pictures as well (some are shown here). This project is closely connected to another we are running (Poo!) where we are trying to survey certain mammals by collecting droppings (‘scat’ samples).

Interestingly, the trail cameras have picked up hybrid Wildcats too. These are not the true Scottish Wildcats, but animals that have descended from Wildcat /domestic cat pairings. We are currently assessing whether we can formally include these in our survey work as well.

 
Now this is a huge undertaking and Lydia has been kept very busy (and has almost bought the Tarland Spa out of peanut butter!), but it is a little too early to say what we’ve found. Suffice to say there are definitely Red Squirrels in the area (no greys seen, yet…) but there seem to be more in some woods than others, and Pine Marten are turning up occasionally but they are probably present at quite low density.
 
And of course we have some hybrid Wildcats in the area too. This work will continue year-round, though the methodology will vary with the seasons, so we hope to have a clearer picture in the near future. We’ll keep you posted in these pages!
 
If any of the local Howe residents out there have seen any of these species we would love to hear from you – please do get in touch. The reports we have had already from local residents have been extremely valuable and much appreciated!

Acknowledgements – we must say a huge ‘thank you’ to Dave Butler of Perdix Wildlife Supplies for providing some of our trail cameras, and for the track-recording cards, and similarly to Emma Sheehy of Aberdeen University for much help with planning this study and equipment.
Dave Parish, dparish@gwct.org.uk, 07889 891956.


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