Video: Pine marten family almost wiped out in forest blaze
An entire pine marten family was almost destroyed by a deliberate forest fire, conservationists in Co Down have said.
The small cat-like animals are seldom seen in North Down and wildlife volunteers said the "tragic" and "irresponsible" use of woodland areas was putting them in harm's way.
Builders discovered 'Spot' the pine marten lying with a broken jaw last week beside a skip off the A2 dual-carriageway to Bangor.
He received emergency care from Cedarmount vets in Bangor and after initial fears he had lost his sight, Spot was returned to the wild on Sunday.
Ronald Surgenor (45) from the North Down Red Squirrel and Pine Marten Group was keeping a close eye on Spot as he recovered.
"It seems that some people were drinking and lit a barbecue in Crawfordsburn Country Park area at the start of July. It caught fire and spread within 40 metres of the pine marten den site," he said.
"The family had been using the site for about five years for breeding so they are fairly rare. Spot's family scattered and it took us a couple of weeks before we could track them down again."
A 2015 study by Queen's University showed that pine martens were now present in every county in Northern Ireland, more common than previously thought.
Mr Surgenor has been able to keep track of Spot and his family in recent years, distinguishing them by their distinct chest markings.
When Spot was seen adrift weeks after the fire, the challenge became keeping him and others away from traffic.
"I set up a feeding station to try and keep them away from the dual carriageway," Mr Surgenor said. "The problem was they were crossing two roads to get into a fragmented woodland.
"We lost one of the kits on the road. She was limping for two days and disappeared.
"Another kit wasn't seen for two weeks and was split up from the family, but we saw him again on camera.
"Thankfully, the mother seems to still be healthy. Spot's family are by far the most productive family in North Down so losing him would have been a major blow."
The group is seeking more volunteers to help protect the population in the area and can be contacted by email on Northdownrspmg@gmail.com.