Surprise as secret colony of elusive pine martens are caught on camera
The rare pine marten does not live in the Quoile near Downpatrick - at least that is what everybody thought until recently.
But after Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) staff at the Quoile Pondage National Nature Reserve experimented with stealth cameras, they discovered something surprising - a population of them living unnoticed under their noses.
Since then, they have been enticing the elusive mammals with treats of roadkill pheasant and peanut butter spread on tree stumps. And their efforts were rewarded after a couple of young pine martens, known as kits, were caught on camera climbing a tree.
NIEA scientific officer Andrew McIntosh said the pine marten population declined in 19th and early 20th centuries when they were persecuted by gamekeepers, but they were now more prevalent than believed.
"They're mainly nocturnal animals, although they've also been photographed in the early morning," he added.
"The pine marten is a member of the weasel family, and is as big as a large cat. They're quite agile and do a lot of climbing up trees.
"They're a fairly elusive animal and are mainly found in the west of Northern Ireland."
The Quoile had records of pine martens from years ago, but it was thought they no longer lived there until the stealth cameras began capturing them on film.
In recent years, scientists have discovered the mammals aid red squirrel conservation by helping keep populations of invasive greys under control.
"We have no squirrels at the Quoile but in other parts of Northern Ireland they would prey on grey squirrels," Mr McIntosh said.
Staff at Crom in Fermanagh have enticed pine martens close to the building with treats of jam, but the ones at the Quoile do not appear to have such a sweet tooth.
"We tried jam, but the pine martens here seem to prefer peanut butter," Mr McIntosh said. "We spread it on the branches and on tree stumps."
A tidal barrier put across the Quoile estuary in 1957 created the freshwater lake that is present today, and a rich variety of habitats surround it. Over the years, it has changed from estuarine and seashore habitats to wetland and woodland habitats, with oak and ash woodland developing on the stony shores.
Efforts are being made to maintain the area in a natural way using rare breed Konik ponies, which graze the wetland. There have been sightings of red deer stags, peregrine falcons and even a rare marsh harrier.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said: "Pine martens are more common in the west of Northern Ireland and are elusive and not known in high numbers in the east of the province.
"They are believed to have been in Ireland since the end of the last glaciation period, more than 10,000 years ago, when the UK and Ireland had much more extensive woodland coverage.
"However, footage from the stealth cameras at the Quoile reserve shows evidence of a breeding population, including kits, the baby pine martens, living within the vicinity of the reserve."