Following recent positive reports about red squirrels in the north of England, we revisit the story of the red squirrels at Formby. Countryside Manager Andrew Brockbank charts a challenging few years for the red squirrels on this stretch of the Sefton coast in Lancashire.
National Trust Formby is in the heart of the Sefton Coast pine wood reserve of 400 hectares (1000 acres).
The surrounding landscape is part of the North Merseyside red squirrel stronghold, which extends from the northern fringes of Liverpool to Southport, including part of West Lancashire.
Pine woods are a very valuable habitat for red squirrels. At Formby they can be at high density of up to one red squirrel in every acre.
Red squirrels eat a variety of berries, seeds and shoots of trees but pine cones and seeds form the mainstay of their diet.
Our woodland conservation at Formby aims to ensure a varied age structure amongst the pines. We thin maturing trees and also fell and replant small areas within the woodland. The oldest pines here are 80 or more years old. It is important to have young trees coming up so that there is a good source of pine cones in the future.
Back in 2007/8 the red squirrel numbers crashed due to a major outbreak of Squirrel Pox Virus (SPV). Seeing them suffer from the infection was heart-breaking, but out of adversity came opportunity and what was so impressive was the way people volunteered to help.
National Trust supporters were particularly generous with their contributions to virtual gifts to support red squirrel conservation. Some of this money supported a PhD research project by Tim Dale and a team from the University of Liverpool.
A key result of the research was that a small proportion of red squirrels showed a degree of antibody (or resistance) to SPV 18 months after the outbreak had subsided and the population recovered. These animals appeared to have had some innate resistance to the disease.
Whether red squirrels have any long term immunity or not remains to be seen. But the recovery of the population and the findings of the research give us hope that red squirrels have a better chance of survival at Formby than we had thought possible just a few years ago.
The National Trust recognises the important contribution of this research in the conservation of the red squirrel. We are poised to support further research if this will help us secure a future for the red squirrel in the UK.