Coun­trycall

Evergreen - - Contents - John Greeves

The elu­sive red squir­rel, the orig­i­nal Squir­rel Nutkin of Beatrix Pot­ter fame has only been seen by less than one in 20 peo­ple in Bri­tain, but af­ter over a cen­tury in de­cline ex­perts be­lieve the plight of the red squir­rel may at last be turn­ing a cor­ner. A com­pre­hen­sive study of their num­ber es­ti­mated the over­all pop­u­la­tion to be 161,000 with 30,000 of these in Eng­land, 121,000 in Scot­land and 10,000 in Wales. The ma­jor­ity of red squir­rels are still to be found in Scot­land, with those in Eng­land mainly found in Northum­ber­land, Cum­ber­land, north York­shire and Lan­cashire. They re­main largely non- ex­is­tent in the south of Eng­land, apart from iso­lated pock­ets on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Is­land in Dorset.

Num­bers, how­ever, can vary greatly from year to year de­pend­ing on food avail­abil­ity. A more ac­cu­rate method to sur­vey their in­crease or de­cline is to look at the dis­tri­bu­tion ar­eas where they can be found. Re­search by Red Squir­rels North­ern Eng­land re­veals that they have been spot­ted in parts of the York­shire Dales, the North Pen­nines and Lan­cashire for the first time in 140 years. Three hun­dred wood­lands were vis­ited in the North, in­clud­ing those in Cum­ber­land and Northum­ber­land and the dis­tri­bu­tion of reds was found to have risen by seven per cent com­pared to spring 2012.

Good news is also com­ing from An­gle­sey in Wales. In 1997, the red squir­rel pop­u­la­tion was close to ex­tinc­tion and fewer than 40 adults re­mained. Af­ter 14 years of con­ser­va­tion strate­gies, the pop­u­la­tion in­creased to 700 with red squir­rels now a com­mon sight in conif­er­ous wood­land, broadleaved stands, parks and gar­dens. In 2008 red squir­rels crossed the Me­nai Strait and con­tinue to colonise parts of Gwynedd. An­gle­sey now con­tains the largest pop­u­la­tion of red squir­rels in Wales. Due to lo­cal part­ner­ships, vol­un­teers and im­prove­ments to habi­tats it’s hoped to ex­pand the

pop­u­la­tion as far south as Ban­gor. In 2012 red squir­rels were in­tro­duced to Llangefni Din­gle to pro­mote an­other foothold in this resur­gence.

In Scot­land many groups have been proac­tive. Sav­ing Scot­land’s Red Squir­rels ( SSRS) has merged with Red Squir­rels in South Scot­land ( RSSS) to co- or­di­nate ac­tion to save Bri­tain’s only na­tive squir­rel species. The part­ner­ship has aimed to halt the de­cline of red squir­rels in key ar­eas of north Scot­land and slow down or con­tain the deadly spread of squir­rel pox car­ried by greys in south Scot­land.

Although many ex­perts feel cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the resur­gence of red squir­rels ( Sci­u­rus vul­garis), more needs to be done to pre­serve this na­tive species which is still con­sid­ered en­dan­gered. Grey squir­rels ( Sci­u­rus car­o­li­nen­sis), which orig­i­nally came from North Amer­ica are the sin­gle ma­jor fac­tor in the de­cline of the na­tive red squir­rel. They were in­tro­duced in 1876 when the first pair of greys was re­leased in Hen­bury Park, Cheshire, by a Mr. Brock­le­hurst with fur­ther re­leases tak­ing place in the fol­low­ing 50 years. To­day it’s es­ti­mated that there are nearly three mil­lion grey squir­rels in Bri­tain. Greys also pose threats other than dec­i­mat­ing the red squir­rel pop­u­la­tion. They con­sume na­tive birds’ eggs and nestlings, and cause dam­age to trees by gnaw­ing bark so stunt­ing growth or killing trees.

The main source of com­pe­ti­tion amongst red and grey squir­rels comes from food sources. Reds pri­mar­ily eat seeds from plants and trees, but their diet can vary greatly through­out the year when they can turn to plant shoots, bulbs, flow­ers, wild fruit, berries, in­sects and even the oc­ca­sional bird’s egg.

Greys are phys­i­cally larger and, un­like their cousins, can feed on seeds such as acorns with high tan­nin

con­tent be­cause of their dif­fer­ent di­ges­tive phys­i­ol­ogy. Not only can greys com­pete for red squir­rels’ food, they can also sup­ple­ment it with other foods not eaten by the reds. As a re­sult, greys have a higher ju­ve­nile sur­vival rate. In ar­eas where red and grey com­pete, the pres­ence of greys tends to lead to a rapid de­cline in the red pop­u­la­tion. In more re­cent times, reds have also suf­fered from the fa­tal squir­rel pox virus, that is of­ten car­ried by greys which rarely die from the dis­ease.

The only habi­tat in which red squir­rels seem to have an ad­van­tage over greys is large conifer forests, which don’t con­tain broadleaved trees such as oak, beech and chest­nut. The Forestry Com­mis­sion has iden­ti­fied 18 such sites deemed as “red squir­rel strongholds” which they will con­tinue to man­age to give the red squir­rel a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage.

Man has also played a part in the red squir­rel’s demise. In places they be­came ex­tinct due to the need for tim­ber for in­dus­try, agri­cul­ture and for war, which led to the felling of large ar­eas of wood­land.

Re­mov­ing grey squir­rels seems to be key to red squir­rel sur­vival. His Royal High­ness The Prince of Wales or­dered a cull on his Duchy of Corn­wall lands and the govern­ment en­cour­aged oth­ers to fol­low. The Forestry Com­mis­sion agrees that con­trols of grey squir­rels are essen­tial, if red squir­rels are to sur­vive. In its pol­icy it says: “Where grey squir­rels are caus­ing prob­lems, landown­ers and man­agers are crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of pol­icy im­ple­men­ta­tion by tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for con­trol­ling grey squir­rels on their land.”

En­cour­ag­ing a favourable habi­tat is also im­por­tant. A mix­ture of tree species is vi­tal in re­duc­ing the im­pact of poor cone years in any par­tic­u­lar species. Species of value to red squir­rels in­clude Nor­way spruce, Scots pine, Cor­si­can pine and larch. Ideally there should be around onethird of each of the fol­low­ing tree- age classes in the wood: younger than 15 years; 15- 30 years; older than 30 years. Min­i­mal felling or thin­ning trees be­tween Fe­bru­ary and July to avoid

dis­tur­bance dur­ing the red squir­rel breed­ing sea­son is also cru­cial. Thin­ning can ben­e­fit red squir­rels, pro­vid­ing it is done care­fully and can pro­duce in­di­vid­ual trees with deeper crowns, which can yield a larger seed crop for red squir­rels.

Katy Cook from Red Squir­rels North­ern Eng­land out­lines how or­gan­i­sa­tions like hers have ac­tively pro­moted the sur­vival of the red squir­rel. These have in­cluded es­tab­lish­ing the largest sur­vey of red squir­rels’ range ever un­der­taken, car­ry­ing out tar­geted grey squir­rel con­trol over 80,000 hectares of wood­lands and help­ing to es­tab­lish 10 new com­mu­nity groups. There are now over 40 lo­cal groups across the north of Eng­land with more than 1,000 vol­un­teers. Red Squir­rels North­ern Eng­land also works hard to raise aware­ness en­gag­ing with school­child­ren and univer­sity stu­dents.

Katy feels “In the north of Eng­land we’ve had very pos­i­tive steps so far,” but she re­minds ev­ery­one, how “go­ing for­ward needs con­tin­ued in­vest­ment and ef­fort from all those who have a stake in red squir­rel con­ser­va­tion — govern­ment, landown­ers, game­keep­ers, vol­un­teers, mem­bers of the pub­lic. Red Squir­rels North­ern Eng­land is just a small part of this puz­zle,” she says.

Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion:

Red Squir­rels North­ern Eng­land: www. rsne. org. uk The Red Squir­rel Sur­vival Trust www. rsst. org. uk SSRS: scot­tish­squir­rels. org. uk Red Squir­rels Trust Wales: www. red­squir­rels. info

LISA GEOGHE­GAN

Grey squir­rels pose the great­est threat to the red squir­rel.

BRIAN GIBBS

Red squir­rels are na­tive to Bri­tain, but their num­bers have de­clined.

PEARL BUCKNALL

Spot­ted en­joy­ing a feast in a gar­den in An­gle­sey. The red squir­rel pop­u­la­tion has in­creased in this part of Bri­tain.

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