A pine marten. Photo credit: Robert Cruickshanks.

Read the article here.

While conservation practitioners are increasingly addressing the global decline in predators, these same species are often the ones about which local residents feel most strongly, as they can affect their livelihoods and, indeed, their safety.

Conservation translocations, of which reintroductions are the most common form, are frequently used as part of predator recovery and restoration programmes, and yet the return of an unfamiliar, albeit native predator, can sometimes be unwelcome, particularly where the species is long gone, distantly remembered, or has other negative connotations.

Pine martens, are cat-like carnivores and members of the weasel family. They were once common and widespread across Great Britain, but declined due to extensive population control during the 18th and 19th centuries. Legal protection has facilitated their recovery in Scotland. In Wales, by contrast, what was left of their population, if anything, required reinforcement by a translocation to be sustained in the long term. As researchers, and as conservation practitioners working towards pine marten restoration and recovery, we wanted to understand how the residents of the areas likely to be most affected by the initial translocations felt about the prospect, with a view to understanding opposition, as well as support, what underpinned these perspectives, and how and whether we might be able to mitigate any of the problems that might arise, or be expected.

In this study, we first interviewed key stakeholders, and extracting statements from their interviews, we presented a larger sample of residents, from a range of backgrounds and occupations, with the set of statements, asking them to sort them according to their level of agreement and disagreement. This process, known as a Q-sort, and the associated analysis, allowed us to characterise four distinct perspectives on the pine marten translocation, but also highlighted how other issues affected local residents’ perspectives.

In contrast to binary ‘for or against’ characterisations of public and media debates surrounding such proposals, we identified four perspectives with distinct priorities and concerns. A single perspective (‘Concerned Manager’) opposed the translocation and pine marten recovery more generally, was apprehensive about impacts and favoured traditional predator management practices. Support for pine marten recovery was characterised by three distinct perspectives: ‘Environmental Protectionist’, ‘Natural Resource Steward’, and ‘Cautious Pragmatist’. Two explicitly supported the translocation but differed in their priorities: Environmental Protectionist framed pine marten restoration as an ethical imperative, whereas Natural Resource Steward emphasised ecological and economic benefits. Cautious Pragmatist supported pine marten recovery, but expressed ambivalence about the translocation.

While we identified areas of divergence between the four perspectives, particularly surrounding risks posed by pine martens and need for predator control, we also identified two areas of consensus among the four perspectives: support for a biodiverse environment and translocations as a means of achieving this (though this depended on which species was being translocated), and agreement there would be economic and ecological benefits if pine martens controlled non-native grey squirrels Sciurus carolinensis.

People’s perspectives on this project were influenced by wider issues of wildlife management and conservation, particularly the impact and management of increasing populations of another mesocarnivore, the badger Meles meles. Negative experiences and perceptions of badgers were germane to the Concerned Manager perspective, and their fear that the pine marten’s protected status would preclude control of their populations. ‘Rewilding’ also emerged as a divisive background issue, against which some participants evaluated the translocation.

Undertaking this study enabled us as practitioners and researchers to understand residents’ perspectives and establish the contexts through which they had formed. We found that using this Q-methodology enabled us to meaningfully engage with residents, and to recognise potential for conflict at an early stage. We recommend the tool as a useful step in assessing social feasibility of conservation translocations.