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Trail of the lonesome pine marten; Keep your eyes peeled for Britain's rarest mammal.

Byline: MIKE LOCKLEY

IT is Britain's rarest mammal - and excited wildlife experts have just discovered it has a claw-hold in the Midlands.

But they don't know how many pine martens - a cat-sized member of the stoat family - are out there, or exactly where.

In fact, they're not even sure how they got here.

Now The Vincent Wildlife Trust, a Hereford-based charity dedicated to saving Britain's rarest animals from extinction, is calling on Sunday Mercury readers to help them fill in the blanks.

They want you to keep eyes peeled and inform them of any pine marten sightings.

Until six years ago it was believed the secretive species was largely restricted to remote areas of Scotland, with a small colony in Mid-Wales.

But the trust has been forced to radically reconsider the pine marten's range following two sightings in Staffordshire. They know pine martens are out there, admits project support officer Lizzie Croose. They just don't know the numbers.

Posters urging walkers to report sightings have now been erected in woodland areas such as Mortimer Forest on the fringes of Ludlow, Shropshire.

"A road kill would be fantastic as evidence," says Lizzie. "But it's not something people take pictures of."

The trust was forced to re-write the pine marten script when Penkridge's Derek Crawley, head of the Staffordshire Mammal Group, discovered strange, sweetsmelling droppings near Tittesworth Reservoir. Tests proved the 'scat' came from a pine marten.

The drama increased when one of the creatures was photographed in a cherry tree in Consall Wood, near Stoke.

Recorded They have also been recorded in the East Midlands, and Cannock Chase has had its share of alleged sightings.

Only last week a member of the public reported seeing one on the Chase.

Lizzie adds: "They exist in low densities in areas where they were thought to have been lost for 200 years. We have the evidence that they are there, but we don't know how many are out there.

"They are woodland specialists, which is one of the reasons they became so scarce. They use large tree cavities, which restricts their range. Young woodland is no use to them."

Conservation efforts have paid dividends in Scotland where pine martens are on the increase.

But even north of the border, you have to be very lucky to see one. They are elusive and crepuscular by nature, meaning they are active at dusk and dawn.

The vast majority of sightings lodged with the trust turn out to be polecats, mink, stoats and even foxes. "Look out for the dark chocolate coat and very distinctive cream bib," says Lizzie.

Droppings are usually the only sign a polecat is about. The 'scat' is similar to a fox's, but has a distinct sweet smell.

The Staffordshire Mammal Group has erected pine marten nest boxes in local woodland, but, as yet, there have been no takers.

Chairman Derek Crawley knows they're out there - but doesn't know how they got there.

Strangely, extensive DNA tests have shown the Midland martens are all related to their Scottish cousins. "Is the range expanding?" asks Derek. "Or are they being picked up in Scotland and released here?" If you think you've seen a pine marten, please post the details on the trust's website: www.vwt.org.uk.

mike.lockley@trinitymirror.com

CAPTION(S):

HAVE YOU SEEN ONE?: From left, Tittesworth Reservoir, Consall Wood and Cannock Chase
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jun 3, 2012
Words:562
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