The red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, is native to Northumberland and has been since the species colonised in Britain – post ice age – around 10,000 years ago. Despite this, they face constant threat of habitat loss and being out-competed by the American grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis. Not only are the smaller red squirrels at a physical disadvantage to the much larger greys, they also face the huge risk of catching the squirrelpox virus. Squirrelpox is carried by greys but they remain unaffected, when the virus is exposed to the rare reds it can be a deadly killer. Currently, the red squirrel is listed as species that is ‘facing severe threats to their survival’ in Britain, and could, without our help, disappear from the local area all together.
Heinz Traut, a Red Squirrel and Woodland Officer for the the Red Squirrels Northern England at Northumberland Wildlife Trust explains, how we can contribute to the protection and conservation of red squirrels in northern England, and the best areas for spotting squirrels too.
There are two reasons the reds are so prominent in Northumberland and Cumbria, Heinz told us. ‘The first is due to a semi-natural barrier which has been created by the commercial afforestation of large areas, such as Kielder Forest,’ he explains. ‘Because the area is made up of conifer trees, mainly Sitka spruce, the greys find it difficult to thrive, which allows the reds to persist. Grey squirrels require native woodlands with large-seeded trees like oak, hazel and sycamore, to fatten up on.’ The efforts of volunteer-led community groups, landowners and conservation organisations is the second reason reds can be found in our local area. ‘Without these, the red squirrels could easily have disappeared,’ Heinz explains.
Grey squirrel control is vital too. ‘By monitoring the effects of the programmes currently implemented, we have found that thankfully they seem to be slowing down the reduction in the number of reds, and at National Trust’s Wallington Hall the number of reds has seen a rare increase,’ Heinz tells us. However, in order for this to continue, the improvement and development of programmes is vital. So what are the best ways to get involved? ‘There is so much people can do to help, no matter what their ability, skill or availability,’ says Heinz. ‘Running a group volunteer-programme can involve anything from administration to data processing, but there are other ways to get involved too, like simply raising awareness and fundraising for Red Squirrels Northen England,’ he tells us. RSNE offers the public many opportunities to get involved, like surveys of woodland areas and visits to Kielder Forest throughout the year. Simpler still, submitting squirrel sightings can be done quickly online, yet is hugely valuable.
The RSNE’s Annual Squirrel Monitoring Programme, now in its seventh year, surveys almost 300 woodlands and gardens to build a compelling case that squirrel conservation can and will work. This year’s spring report was able to show that, red squirrel range here in the North has remained stable for the last three years, undoubtedly as a result of efforts of projects such as RSNE to protect them. However, there is no quick fix, and finding long-term solutions can be a strain on funding. ‘The government's Countryside Stewardship grant scheme has been a great help with funding, but we’re always in need of more. Our Friends of Red Squirrels membership is a great way to support the RSNE without needing to devote too much time,’ says Heinz.
At present, red squirrel conservation is facing uncertain times, and despite having the evidence that conservation works, the RSNE are experiencing ‘a period of funder fatigue,’ having exhausted a number of larger funders. ‘Our problem is that despite being able to evidence our successes, many funders require a quick and immediate solution to the problem, and red squirrel conservation needs long-term backing,’ explains Heinz.
There are many exciting developments in red squirrel conservation all of which need additional funding, but currently gathering momentum is fertility control for grey squirrels. It takes the form of a vaccine, and is delivered to the grey squirrels encapsulated in their bait. The vaccine will stimulate the production of antibodies that then go on to make both male and female squirrels infertile and is seen as a humane method of controlling the population of greys. ‘Other methods of controlling grey squirrels can include trapping, but this is time consuming and expensive,’ says Heinz. Although exciting developments are set for the future, the immediate here and now is a crucial time to show support by lending a hand to projects such as RNSE as they protect the reds in our local area.
To make a donation, or become a member of the Friend of the Red Squirrel scheme, visit www.rsne.org.uk
See a rare red squirrel at one of these local spots and remember to enter your sightings online with Red Squirrels Northern England to play your part in their vital work
Woodhorn Museum, Ashington
With two dedicated feeding stations in the grounds of the museum, you’ve got every chance to spot a red.
Kielder Castle, Kielder
Here they’re nuts about reds. You can see them from their dedicated hide, then learn all about them in the Red Squirrel World information room.
Kielder Water & Forest Park, Kielder
Take a short stroll through the woodland to reach the wildlife hide, where red squirrels are often seen on feeders.
Howick Hall Gardens & Arboretum, Alnwick
Discover approximately 11,000 trees and shrubs in 65 acres of woodland – and plenty of red squirrels too.
Killhope Lead Mining Museum, Bishop Auckland
All the makings of a great family day out – an award-winning museum with red squirrels in the grounds.
Pow Hill Country Park, Consett
This Site of Special Scientific Interest overlooks the Derwent Reservoir. There’s lots to see, including red squirrels.
Red Squirrel Hide, Hawes
Simon Phillpott's purpose-built red squirrel hide offers a great opportunity to get the perfect photo.
Snaizeholme Red Squirrel Trail Widdale, Wensleydale
The Snaizeholme red squirrel viewing area lies in the heart of the Widdale Red Squirrel Reserve. With luck you may also see roe deer and woodland birds.
Whinlatter Forest Park, Keswick
A designated red squirrel reserve. Embark on one of their child-friendly and signposted walks for a chance to see a red.
National Trust Allan Bank, Grasmere
This beautiful woodland walk offers a good chance of seeing a red.