National Mammal Week 2020: Day 9: Coniferous Woodlands
Nick Littlewood is a Lecturer in Wildlife Conservation Management at Scotland’s Rural College in Aberdeen. He was Lead Editor of the Mammal Atlas of North-East Scotland and the Cairngorms. Here, Nick tells us about what you might find in coniferous woodland habitat….
The forest is quiet – but in the dark, something moves. Under the thick spruce canopy, where night and day merge into one, a denizen of the woods ambles along the gap between two parallel rows of planted trees. As it reaches a junction, it freezes, momentarily surprised, but then intrigued, by a dim red light appearing from the base of an adjacent tree. Pausing, senses alert, it stands upright on hind legs, facing towards the light – reaffirming that Pine Martens truly are superstar performers in front of camera traps.
The spread of Pine Martens across much of the Scottish mainland north of Edinburgh and Glasgow is a success story for species resilience. This near-extinct animal managed to recover old ground when the twin drivers of human persecution and habitat loss were reversed. Persecution declined, as two World Wars took young men away from the glens, and forest cover in Scotland increased steadily from a low point of just 5% at the start of the twentieth century to around 19% today. Much of the new forest comprises fast-growing conifers, especially Sitka Spruce, and these vast, densely planted areas are not without critics from among conservation circles. However, conifer forests carpeting low hill or edges of moors, or as appearing as smaller pockets through lowland areas, provide shelter and habitat for Pine Martens and a range of other species that are far less suited to more open habitats.
Red Squirrels, too, thrive in conifer woodland, with native pinewoods supporting the highest densities. Within plantations, Sitka Spruce is not an ideal habitat, given the unpredictable nature of the cone crop. Forests that also have at least some areas of pines, Norway Sprue or Larch, though, can sustain large populations. Some Red Squirrels do fall prey to Pine Martens, but recent research shows that, overall, martens have a positive effect on Red Squirrel populations, through suppressing non-native Grey Squirrels. Indeed, following arrival of Pine Martens, Red Squirrels are now recolonising some forests from which they had been absent for several decades, since the arrival of Grey Squirrels.
Not all conifer woodland-dwelling species are thriving, though. Wildcats are being lost through hybridisation with feral domestic cats and it has recently been shown that all animals now sit on a genetic continuum between Wildcats and domestic cats. Conifer plantations host most of our remaining animals that most strongly resemble Wildcats in appearance and behaviour and which still have a decent dose of Wildcat genes. With a diet dominated by small mammals, these cats favour forest edges, with easy access to grassy areas for hunting. The patchwork rotations in some large commercial forest plantation areas can provide just the right mix and scale of habitat resources and will likely form the nucleus for efforts to establish or maintain viable populations of animals that are as close to being Wildcats as is feasible.
Conifer plantations are not easy places for watching mammals. There may be chance encounters of animals along forest roads and paths and open areas within forests can be productive, especially at dusk, but mammal recording more usually depends on looking for signs, such as scats, or remote methods, especially camera traps. The explosion of enthusiasm for this latter technique has enabled effective monitoring of the expansion of Pine Martens in Scotland as well as of their recent re-establishment in Wales and releases elsewhere (such as in the Forest of Dean). So if you fancy trying your luck with recording this species and others on your own camera trap, then head for the woods.
How can you help?
You can also help us to build our knowledge of these mammals and other mammals by downloading our Mammal Mapper app and recording what you see. You can download it for free from your app store and all who register during Mammal Week will be entered into a draw to win a prize! Read more about Mammal Mapper here
If you don’t have a smartphone you can still record your mammal signs and sightings using our online recording form found here