The last few decades have al­most seen the an­ni­hi­la­tion of the red squir­rel in Wales but, as He­lena dis­cov­ers, there are still ini­tia­tives that work to pro­tect the re­main­ing pop­u­la­tions

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - For more info on GWCT Wales see wales

The Bri­tish As­so­ci­a­tion of Shoot­ing and Con­ser­va­tion (BASC) has an­nounced the ap­point­ment of Sarah Pin­nell as Green Shoots Wales of­fi­cer to boost con­ser­va­tion ef­forts in Wales. Sarah will gen­er­ate net­works of vol­un­teers to track and re­move grey squir­rels and mink to pro­tect red squir­rels and wa­ter voles re­spec­tively through­out Wales.

Sarah is very ex­cited about con­tin­u­ing the suc­cess of the project. “I have been im­pressed by the ded­i­ca­tion of the ex­ist­ing vol­un­teers,” she says, “and I’m look­ing for­ward to work­ing with them and new vol­un­teers to fur­ther the project, giv­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for na­tive wildlife to flour­ish. The project would wel­come new vol­un­teers es­pe­cially from peo­ple liv­ing in mid Wales in the Ceredi­gion area.”

Ian Danby, BASC’s head of bio­di­ver­sity projects, said: “I am de­lighted to have Sarah come into the project. She has ex­cel­lent skills in man­age­ment and work­ing with vol­un­teers and is keen to get to grips with the project.”

As well as BASC’s work in this area, red squir­rels in Wales also have a cham­pion in the Mid Wales Red Squir­rel Part­ner­ship (MWRSP), which aims to ex­pand and pro­tect the unique pop­u­la­tion of red squir­rels in mid Wales, one of only three sig­nif­i­cant red squir­rel pop­u­la­tions in the whole of the coun­try. The MWRSP also works with BASC to di­rect in­ter­ested peo­ple to the BASC trap loan scheme.

Es­tab­lished in 2002, the MWRSP has worked to es­tab­lish sound base­line in­for­ma­tion about the red squir­rel pop­u­la­tion in mid Wales, lead­ing to the de­vel­op­ment of a ro­bust un­der­stand­ing of the work re­quired to con­serve the red squir­rel in the ar­eas where they are found.

The grey squir­rel has been iden­ti­fied as one of the main threats to the fu­ture sur­vival of red squir­rels, which can only be mit­i­gated with sus­tained lo­cal ac­tion. Red squir­rel num­bers in the UK have fallen from around 3.5m in the 1950s to some 120,000 to­day.

In Wales, there are only three re­main­ing red squir­rel pop­u­la­tions: on the is­land of An­gle­sey; around the Tywi For­est in mid Wales; and in the Clo­caenog For­est in north­east­ern Wales.

In 2009, a con­ser­va­tion plan for red squir­rels in Wales was ap­proved by the Welsh gov­ern­ment and iden­ti­fied the Tywi For­est area in mid Wales as one of three sites for ur­gent ac­tion on red squir­rel con­ser­va­tion.

This in­cluded estab­lish­ing a buf­fer area around red squir­rel strongholds with con­trol of grey squir­rels (an in­tro­duced species); mon­i­tor­ing the red squir­rel pop­u­la­tion; ad­vis­ing landown­ers on habi­tat im­prove­ments for red squir­rels; us­ing

for­est plan­ning to max­imise the value of forests for red squir­rels; and in­volv­ing lo­cal schools and com­mu­nity groups.

The pri­mary cause of the re­place­ment of the red squir­rel by the grey squir­rel comes from the grey’s abil­ity to more ef­fec­tively ex­ploit cer­tain food re­sources, par­tic­u­larly those found in broadleaved wood­land. Grey squir­rels feed on hazel­nuts ear­lier than reds; they are bet­ter adapted to di­gest­ing acorns and also steal red squir­rel food caches. In broadleaved wood­land when both red and grey squir­rels are present, red squir­rels have re­duced breed­ing suc­cess and lower growth rates than at sites where only red squir­rels are present, lead­ing to pop­u­la­tion de­clines and ul­ti­mately ex­clu­sion of red squir­rels.

Greys are also re­spon­si­ble for trans­mit­ting the squir­relpox virus (SQPV), a fa­tal in­fec­tious dis­ease in red squir­rels. The re­place­ment of red squir­rels by grey squir­rels is 19-22 times faster where SQPV is present. Not sur­pris­ingly, habi­tat loss is also im­pact­ing red squir­rel de­cline, with the frag­men­ta­tion and degra­da­tion of wood­lands and the loss of hedgerows thought to have led to a de­cline in red squir­rel pop­u­la­tions in the past.

But there is good news. Red squir­rels have a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage over greys in conifer wood­lands, es­pe­cially in spruce-dom­i­nated forests, and this fact is be­ing used in con­ser­va­tion strate­gies.The plant­ing of large ar­eas with conifer trees has pro­vided a habi­tat that favours red squir­rels, although these habi­tats sup­port lower den­si­ties of red squir­rels than op­ti­mal habi­tats.

Buf­fer ar­eas placed around red squir­rel strongholds could help pre­serve their pop­u­la­tion

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