SHOOTING IN WALES
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
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