Roger Ratcliffe: Country & Coast

How lovely to see signs along the narrow road which winds out of Upper Dentdale warning drivers to be extra vigilant; not for sharp bends or for sheep or pedestrians, but for red squirrels.

Red squirrel. Photo by Peter Skillen.

I have negotiated this road several times in the past year but never spotted one from behind the wheel, so last week I parked below the great stone piers of Artengill Viaduct and walked back down the lane towards Cowgill.

Just beyond the small bridge which crosses the infant River Dee, through my binoculars I was rewarded with a glimpse of the squirrel’s reddish-brown summer coat in one of the trees.

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I stood as still as I could for a few minutes, and when it disappeared from view I could hear rustling in the branches get closer and closer until I saw its tufty-eared face fixing me with an inquisitive stare like Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin.

All too soon the rumble of a goods train along the nearby Settle-Carlisle line made it take cover, leaving me to savour the encounter and envy local people who are fortunate enough to enjoy this treat in their gardens.

For years, signs alerting drivers to red squirrels have lined the road through neighbouring Garsdale, and the expansion into Dentdale of one of our rarest and most popular mammals is proof of the continuing success story of its conservation in the Yorkshire Dales.

A century ago it was common in woods and plantations throughout all three Ridings but virtually wiped out following the severe winter of 1962-63 and the spread of a virus called squirrelpox carried by the more numerous grey squirrel, which is immune to the disease.

The red squirrel’s recovery in the Dales took off when the late Hugh Kemp and his wife Jane encouraged a small colony around their farm, Mirk Pot, 1,200 feet up in a remote offshoot of Wensleydale called Snaizeholme.

The couple had moved to the spot back in the 1960s with the intention of growing Norway spruces for the Christmas tree market. They erected a fence round the saplings to keep out sheep and cattle and without the land being grazed, Hugh found that unplanted trees like hawthorn, blackthorn, bird cherry, ash, hazel and rowan began to appear.

The flourishing woodland brought with it a dramatic increase in birds and - most remarkable of all - the sighting of a red squirrel.

The distinctive creatures were unknown in this part of the Dales at the time, and when more and more sightings were reported Hugh was accused of reintroducing the red squirrel to the area himself.

But no, he told sceptics, he certainly did not buy them on eBay or anywhere else and they must, in fact, have spread from the small colony that had established itself in Garsdale.

Hugh’s squirrels steadily multiplied and when I visited him in 2008 there were a couple of dozen.

Over the years, Hugh turned his Dales farm into a refuge for them and even opened up a nine-mile Red Squirrel Trail, of which details of the route are available from the National Park centre at Hawes. And there has been further success elsewhere, with new colonies having been established in a Forestry Commission plantation at Greenfield in Langstrothdale and in woodland around Aysgarth Falls.