Red squirrels and the people ensuring they keep a foothold in Yorkshire

PICS: Tony Johnson
PICS: Tony Johnson
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Red squirrels can be found in a corner of the Yorkshire Dales thanks to dedicated conservation projects. Tony Greenbank went to find out more.

Visitors to the Yorkshire Dales National Park (YDNP) delight in seeing red squirrels scampering along wall tops and performing acrobatics amongst the trees.

Gary Murphy is a red squirrel ranger in the Upper Eden Valley and Sedbergh areas.

Gary Murphy is a red squirrel ranger in the Upper Eden Valley and Sedbergh areas.

Their russet fur and long bushy tails confirms the endearing image we have thanks to Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin.

Not forgetting Tufty Fluffytail, the road safety icon from the 1950s through to the 1990s.

Hiding hazelnuts, pine nuts and beech nuts either in tree crevice larders or in underground caches to see them through each winter, they don’t hibernate but are forever on the go – their very name is synonymous with the word “squirrelling” as in squirrelling away.

Red squirrel rangers are licensed to kill by shooting (and trapping) the grey squirrels that can spread disease to their distant cousins, the reds.

A red squirrel in Smardale Gill near Kirkby Stephen in the Yorkshire Dales National Park . (Picture Tony Johnson).

A red squirrel in Smardale Gill near Kirkby Stephen in the Yorkshire Dales National Park . (Picture Tony Johnson).

The good news is that the yearly monitoring programme in its seventh consecutive year shows the reds population across the northern England range is stable.

Yes, in the northern Dales the reds are holding their own on a par with notable red squirrel territories such as the Highlands, Scottish Borders, Formby, near Southport, and Dorset’s Brownsea Island.

In a cafe below the Howgill Fells I meet Gary Murphy. In charge of conservation efforts in the Upper Eden Valley, he is a full-time red squirrel ranger who also assists the Sedbergh area.

This has only relatively recently seen the return of red squirrels after they were pushed out over a century ago by the greys.

Simon O'Hare, project manager of Red Squirrels Northern England.

Simon O'Hare, project manager of Red Squirrels Northern England.

Murphy says it is thanks to tireless conservation work from local rangers and volunteers that the area has become a red stronghold.

He explains that volunteers play a vital role, both trapping grey squirrels and monitoring their whereabouts.

Here in the YDNP there are active groups in Sedbergh, Wensleydale, Garsdale, Dentdale and Mallerstang ensuring reds remain safe.

In 2008, YDNP staff teamed up with local landowners to set up a red squirrel viewing 
area at Snaizeholme, a red squirrel reserve near Hawes, where visitors are encouraged to book the Little White bus.

A red squirrel in Smardale Gill near Kirkby Stephen.

A red squirrel in Smardale Gill near Kirkby Stephen.

Sedbergh groups’ territory includes Cautley Force waterfall and environs.

“We’ve probably trapped 200 to 300 greys out Cautley way and now there’s a healthy population of reds,” says Murphy.

We are joined by Simon O’Hare, project manager of Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE).

The conservation partnership covers seven counties: Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, North Yorkshire, Lancashire (but for only a smidgin of the county), Merseyside and parts of Durham.

The vast majority of Yorkshire, indeed of most of England, is inhabited by grey squirrels, but North Yorkshire – as in the YDNP that now extends into Cumbria – is a reds domain.

“The grey squirrel was introduced to England in the late 1870s from America. It is the primary cause of the decline of the red squirrel,” says Murphy.

Grey squirrels are classed as vermin under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. “Not only is it larger than the reds and out-competes them for food in deciduous and mixed woodlands, but it is a pest.

“It transmits a deadly virus, the squirrel pox virus, that is lethal to reds.

“If left untreated, the virus can wipe out a whole previously thriving red squirrel population.”

His tone suggests the wealthy landowners introducing the greys from America to “add diversity”, should have known better.

Reds are after all an icon of traditional English countryside; part of the native fauna.

Local squirrel groups are involved with raising their own funds to protect the reds on their doorstep. That includes setting up stands at country shows so people can sign up to become members.

Both Murphy and O’Hare leave me in no doubt of the costs entailed.

“It takes a hundred thousand pounds a year to employ six rangers and to buy monitoring and trapping equipment for a year’s conservation,” says Murphy. “This involves buying the traps that have the all-important task of collaring the grey squirrels.”

He pauses before mentioning his group will receive over a thousand phone calls annually from people reporting grey squirrel sightings. Red squirrel rangers will follow these up where possible and install traps in case the greys return.

The traps are cages that will allow the smaller reds to escape if they inadvertently enter, but which will hold the grey squirrel. Other essentials that have to be purchased are trail cameras for surveillance, Big Brother style.

Plus squirrel food mix of nuts and seeds – and the feeder boxes set up in the woods so they can be monitored by special cameras filming videos.

“Greys are a pest,” reiterates Murphy. “Catch one in a trap in your garden as a member of the public and you’re not allowed to release it. So people call us to deal with them.”

O’Hare breaks in to say it seems crazy but up until 2012, using trail cameras in large numbers for surveillance was unheard of. Now it is seen as the only way.

“Rangers site the cameras close to squirrel feeders and leave for 24 hours or more. There’s hundreds and hundreds of these cameras out in woodlands across the north of England,” he says.

“We also use squirrel feeders as a monitoring indicator. These are stocked full of squirrel mix, including monkey nuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds and maize. And yes greys will feed too. It’s a free meal isn’t it? Thing is, reds aren’t keen on maize. They’ll only eat it as a last resort, just nipping the kernel out.

“So if the maize is disappearing it usually means there are greys about. Grey squirrels prefer hardwood plantations, beech, oak and hazel because they’re a better food source. Bigger seeds, bigger fruits. Greys cannot survive on small seeds from conifer cones.”

Checking how the reds are doing across the range of northern England happens each Spring when 300 surveys take place across the red range, same time, same place, every year.

Since the advent of trail cameras it is a snap. The trail cameras in the salient woods trained on the feeder boxes record photos of squirrels feeding over those 14 days.

“Because of such surveillance, we can now say confidently that reds are being found in the same number of sites every year across red squirrel range,” says Murphy. “And this helps confirm that what we are doing is working.”

NATIONAL PARK’S CONSERVATION WORK

The YDNPA’s contribution to red squirrel conservation has many strands and includes monitoring, woodland management and tree planting; advice to landowners and maintaining and promoting the Snaizeholme red squirrel trail. “The population of red squirrels in the Yorkshire Dales National Park was, until relatively recently, restricted to the Cumbrian area of the Park,” says Wildlife Officer Ian Court. “In the late 1990s, however, came tantalising reports of one or two red squirrels in woodland close to Hawes, just across the county boundary in Yorkshire. As it became clear that a small number were present in at least one woodland, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) started to undertake survey work in the surrounding area to determine if the distribution was more widespread.”

The first records were of squirrels visiting garden bird tables but in many of the conifer plantations there were no houses or public footpaths so a different method was required. “We used short sections of drainpipe with sticky pads at each end placed next to a feeder, so that when the squirrels came to investigate they left a sample of hair on the sticky pad. When these were placed under a microscope it was possible to determine whether it was greys and/or reds that were present in the woodland. Using this simple but effective method we were able to show that red squirrels had spread back into the north west corner of Yorkshire.”