The latest efforts to preserve the red squirrels in the North East
PUBLISHED: 13:18 08 April 2013 | UPDATED: 15:49 10 April 2013
Our native red squirrels have been in decline for years but they now have greater support than ever before.
Theyve been part of our native wildlife for 10,000 years but in recent times the number of red squirrels in Britain has been in freefall and their future, in England at least, now hangs by a thread.
One hundred years ago there may have been 3.5 million of these lovable creatures in the UK but there are now thought to be just 120,000, the vast majority of them north of the Scottish border. Its a dismal story but one with a clear villain the much larger grey squirrel. The grey cousin was introduced to this country in the 19th century from North America, bizarrely as an ornamental species to provide interest in the grounds of country houses.
Since then it has spread relentlessly.
The success of the grey has proved the downfall of the red and the newcomer has now largely driven our native squirrel out of the more favoured broad-leaved woods into conifer plantations, and out of much of the country altogether.
But in northern England, environmentalists are not giving up. Across several counties, Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE) is attempting to turn things around. Its a joint programme between the Forestry Commission, the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, Natural England and several Wildlife Trusts and has the support of the National Trust and private landowners. The work is into its second year and already 17 areas across the north have been identified as remaining relative strongholds of this troubled animal, a species protected by law. These are places where the fight-back has now begun.
Each designated stronghold consists of up to 200 hectares of conifer plantation or forest, surrounded by a five kilometre buffer zone. Northumberland has the lions share with strongholds identified at Kyloe, Uswayford, Kidland, Harwood, Raylees, Kielder and three grouped close together around Slaley.
Emma Wright is the RSNE project officer for Northumberland. She explains that key to everything is active control of the greys in these areas. We have a team of 20 people trapping grey squirrels across northern England, backed up by monitoring work carried out by hundreds of volunteers at 300 sites to check that the reds are recovering as a result. This is in addition to the excellent work already being done to protect red squirrels by many others across northern England.
But how has the grey managed to put red in such a desperate plight in the first place?
Unlike red squirrels, the greys have developed a tolerance to the bitter tannins found in the shells of unripe acorns and other seeds so they can exploit food sources early in the season before reds are able to.
Even more serious is the squirrel pox virus carried by grey squirrels that kills reds directly. The squirrel pox virus is taken by greys into areas where there are reds. Grey squirrels are immune to the disease, says Emma. But as soon as reds get it, they have two weeks to live. If greys and reds are mixing together, then the reds are going to contract the virus. This is the main cause of the decline. Research is being done into vaccination but it is a very long way off being a practical solution.
Reds could disappear before that.
To have to say goodbye to something as endearing as the red squirrel seems unimaginably sad. They are beautiful little creatures, adds Emma. There is a lovely sense of liveliness about them and to see them in woodland here, well, they just seem so right.
Here in the far North East you theoretically have a chance of spotting red squirrels all year round because they dont hibernate. Females will have had their first litter of the year in March and they will now be looking after a family of three or four kittens or kits.
More than their grey counterparts, red squirrels spend most of their time up at the tops of trees and they build football-size nests or dreys about two-thirds of the way up, often in the fork of a branch, tight up against the trunk. Inside an outer layer of closely interwoven twigs is a soft lining of moss, leaves and grass. If food is plentiful, females may produce a second litter in the summer. Youngsters disperse in the autumn.
When Emma took on the job of trying to safeguard red squirrels in Northumberland, she was heartened by the support for her cause. There is a real depth of feeling here that reds are part of the landscape, she said.
It would be a real wrench for many people to see greys come and take their place. After all, its the fault of humans that greys are here at all. Reds are the native species they are the ones that ought to be here.
The RSNE work is scheduled to run until 2015 but few people working on the project believe the reds will be out of danger by then. Clearly they will be hoping for some encouraging early signs on the ground but also for an extension to funding to help them try to make sure the Northumberland forests stay red.
How you can help
Four things you can do to help keep Northumberland red
If you are lucky enough to have red squirrels in your neighbourhood, make your garden red squirrel-friendly by installing a feeder and keeping it stocked with a good range of different seeds and nuts. Dont rely on just peanuts.
Report local sightings of red squirrels to help project workers map out where populations are and how they are doing. Visit www.rsne.org.uk/sightings.
Become a Friend of the Red Squirrel to help support RSNE and receive newsletters about its work. Sign up at www.rsne.org.uk/friends-red-squirrel.
Join your local red squirrel group to help directly with monitoring, find out more at www.northernredsquirrels.org.uk.
Where to spot reds
Talk a walk in the central reserve area of one of the RSNE designated strongholds and you could be lucky enough to see the distinctive orange-red fur, ear tufts and bushy tail of the red squirrel. The grey squirrel can also have some red colouring about it but it doesnt have ear tufts.
Red squirrels are, however, usually shy and you are more likely to see them in some places than others. The following sites are recommended by RSNE (check first for opening details):
Woodhorn Museum and Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington.
Kielder Castle Visitor Centre and Kielder Water and Forest Park.
Howick Hall Gardens and Arboretum, Alnwick. www.howickhallgardens.org
Killhope Lead Mining Museum, Weardale. www.killhope.org.uk
Pow Hill Country Park, Edmundbyers. www.thisisdurham.com