In July last year, photos of a furry, weasel-like creature thought to be extinct in England had local wildlife lovers celebrating. The amateur snapshots, taken in the Shropshire hills, marked the first conclusive sighting of a European pine marten in the country in over 100 years. Fast forward to 2016, and the elusive critters have now made their mark in a new location.

Just last month, camera traps captured photo and video evidence of a pine marten sniffing and scurrying in the leaf litter in New Forest National Park – the first time the species has been filmed in the wild in this part of England. The cameras had been set up at a secret location by local wildlife experts. 

"This is the first time that conclusive footage of these rare mammals has been recorded in the wild in central southern England," write Russell Wynn and Marcus Ward, who head up the newly formed Wild New Forest project.

The project's goal is to support conservation action in the park, one of the UK's most important wildlife habitats. Once a protected royal hunting ground, the area is a mosaic of ancient woodland, heath and marshes – and it's home to some of Britain's rarest species. But until now, pine martens were not among the park's known residents.  

The cat-sized members of the stoat and weasel family once scurried across the UK, but widespread hunting and habitat loss drove them out, with a healthy population now surviving only in Scotland. "Despite occasional scattered sightings in remote upland areas of England and Wales in recent decades, the species was thought to be virtually extinct in these countries," write Wynn and Ward on the project website.

The new appearances come just eight months after the Shropshire sighting, when amateur wildlife recorder Dave Pearce captured two photographs of a pine marten darting through the woods, leading experts to wander whether the animals had been holding out in the Shorpshire hills all along.

Clues that something was also afoot in New Forest have been around for some time, with 20 pine marten sightings reported since 2010. "[But] although several of these reports came from experienced observers, none of them were supported by photographic evidence or DNA analysis of droppings," say Wynn and Ward.

Then, in early March, their project's camera traps snapped grainy photographs of what looked to be a pine marten. With their mostly nocturnal lifestyles and their habit of spending most of their active hours up in the trees, the animals make elusive targets. "These tantalising glimpses were very exciting, but we still lacked a really conclusive image that would prove beyond doubt that we were dealing with a pine marten," says the duo.

Luckily, their proof came just a few days later, when cameras recorded several clips of what appears to be the same individual visiting a bait station stocked with sunflower seeds. For Wynn and Ward, all this points to the possibility that a small population has established itself in the park – though its origins remain a mystery.

"We will be continuing our camera-trapping programme to try and assess the numbers of pine martens in the central New Forest, and whether [these animals] are successfully breeding," they say.

The park itself is strictly protected from major development, but it's also hemmed in by human activities, which means its wild inhabitants have to contend with noise, pollution and other threats. Now that one of the England's rarest creatures has found a home here, there is one more reason to safeguard this important wildlife refuge. 


Top header image: SurreyJohn, Wikimedia Commons