A seriously threatened species pushed to the brink of extinction could see a return to Cumbria.
The future of pine martens and their possible reintroduction to Grizedale Forest and Rusland woodlands is currently being explored by the Back on our Map (BOOM) project.
A relative of the weasel, numbers declined through persecution and habitat loss and since 1900 have plummeted in England to the point where they are now almost absent.
However, in Scotland, they are faring better and account for 98 per cent of the remaining UK population of around 3,700, according to project lead Dr Mic Mayhew.
He explained: “We need to establish whether they should be reintroduced to our woodland habitats or left to find their own way here from population strongholds in Dumfries and Galloway.”
BOOM is a far-reaching four-year programme, led by the University of Cumbria, to restore populations of rare plants, butterflies and mammals across south Cumbria.
It has been made possible through money raised by National Lottery players and works with local communities in ambitious actions designed to encourage them to reconnect with nature.
Until the late 19th-century pine martens were well distributed across the county. A new population in south Cumbria could help to connect those in southern Scotland with recent reintroductions in Gloucestershire and Wales.
Dr Mayhew said: “Many questions need to be answered to justify their return.
“Pine martens are part of a healthy ecosystem but we need to know how they interact with other wildlife and if there are enough food and sufficient den sites in old trees to allow them to breed.
“They hold large territories and breed slowly so populations in the landscape are never high. The last confirmed record of a pine marten in south Cumbria was in 2010.
“People will have concerns about their potential to prey on red squirrels. However, there is compelling evidence from Ireland and Scotland that where they have returned, reds rebound at the expense of greys.”
BOOM is working closely with Forestry England, Vincent Wildlife Trust, Rusland Horizons Trust and other partners on a feasibility study as part of a national move to restore populations across England and Wales.
Dr Mayhew added: “It is crucially important to engage with the general public and groups who live and work in the countryside, such as foresters, farmers and gamekeepers.
“We will hold public meetings when we can and other events, both face-to-face and online, to allow people to share their ideas, opinions and concerns before we go any further.
“We want to grow awareness and encourage people to get involved in our feasibility study.”