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.
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
Grey squirrels pose the greatest threat to the red squirrel.
Red squirrels are native to Britain, but their numbers have declined.
Spotted enjoying a feast in a garden in Anglesey. The red squirrel population has increased in this part of Britain.