Threatened red squirrel numbers are thriving against the odds on one of Britain’s largest estates after painstaking work by a National Trust ranger.
The population of reds at Wallington, Northumberland, almost disappeared entirely in 2011 after grey squirrels moved into the area, bringing with them the deadly squirrel pox virus.
However, the estate is now home to over 170 red squirrels and is one of the most popular places to visit by tourists eager to spot the animal made famous by Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.
Across Britain, the plight of red squirrels is rife and, with only 15, 000 left in the England, conservation projects are the only way to safeguard their future.
Threatened by disease and a loss of habitat, red squirrel numbers have fallen in the UK from approximately 3.5 million and those that remain are constantly under threat from non-native greys. 23rd September marks the beginning of Red Squirrel Awareness Week, designed to highlight the decline.
The National Trust’s largest agricultural estate was overrun by grey squirrels until a conservation initiative transformed it to contain only reds. Wallington Hall is one of the last remaining strongholds for red squirrels in England.
In Glen Graham, the Trust recruited its first red squirrel ranger to head a new conservation project to revive the native reds. Former neighbourhood investigation officer Glen began monitoring the numbers of both species and co-ordinated grey squirrel control. The work had dramatic effects, the red squirrel population gradually began to resurface, and greys were eventually eradicated entirely.
Glen says, “The constant presence of rangers, alongside the support of visitors and volunteers, is crucial to safeguarding red squirrel populations. Looking to the future, contraceptive methods and new technologies could provide long-term solutions but in the meantime, we need public buy in to protect one of Britain’s best loved species.”
The project has not been plain sailing and invasions of grey squirrels have led to outbreaks of squirrel pox. But by responding quickly, Glen has helped the population of reds to recover and grow again.
Glen Graham adds, “Looking after the reds has become more than a job, and it’s the animals and changing seasons which dictate my schedule. I’m delighted with the progress we’ve made here for red squirrels and hopefully, we can emulate this success at other sites across the country. The reds are so popular with tourists and locals alike, and form a key part of the UK’s woodlands landscape.”
Other National Trust sites where red squirrels can be found include Borthwood Copse on the Isle of Wight, Brownsea Island in Dorset and Aira Force in the Lake District.
David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust, says, “Red squirrels are facing a constant battle and those National Trust sites where they can be still found are increasingly important. We are grateful to and rely on our dedicated rangers, the support of volunteers and partnerships with other environmental organisations to make sure the red squirrel has a future in the UK.”
Red squirrels have lived in the UK for around 10,000 years whereas greys were introduced from North America in 1876. They grey squirrel is largely accepted as the central reason for the decline of red squirrels, competing for food and shelter and transmitting the deadly squirrel pox virus. Once infected, they die of starvation or dehydration.