By Phil Lyth
With the introduction of Grey squirrels to Malton in in 1906, and Bedale in 1913, came the decline of the region's red squirrel population. One hundred years later a red squirrel reserve has been set up in Widdale, to try to save those that are left.
A farm walk organised by the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) recently (26 April) near Hawes in Upper Wensleydale was aimed at helping to prevent the extinction of the red squirrel from the Yorkshire Dales. Hugh and Jane Kemp hosted the walk at Mirk Pot, which was attended by 30+ people.
The Widdale area near Hawes is one of the few areas left in the Dales where red squirrels still thrive, so far resisting the tide of grey squirrels which compete with them for food and spread a deadly "squirrel pox" virus - invariably fatal to poor "squirrel nutkin", but apparently more like a bad cold to the larger greys.
FWAG walking group
Ann Hanson, FWAG adviser and mammal expert, explained that since the introduction of grey squirrels from North America in the late 19th & early 20th century, they have progressively replaced their European cousins, so that now there are around 66 greys for every red. 16 red squirrel reserves have recently been set up to try to save the main populations of reds in the North of England, and Widdale is one of them.
Introductions of greys in Yorkshire started in Malton in 1906, followed by Bedale in 1913 - presumably because people thought they were "cute" - little realising the devastating effect they were to have. Despite their "cute" appearance, grey squirrels need to be regarded as a pest and controlled, not just because of their effect on reds but also because they cause severe damage to trees by bark stripping and prey on woodland birds.
Matt Neale, National Park Ranger with responsibility for the Widdale Reserve explained that by using a survey technique which collected hair samples from red and grey squirrels in "hair tubes", they had discovered evidence of red squirrels as far down Wensleydale as Aysgarth - although it was likely that these were dispersing juveniles which subsequently died from squirrel pox. He also explained that the Park was running a scheme to co-ordinate reports of reds and greys in the area, and would shortly be setting up a trap loan scheme with associated training for people in the Widdale area to help with red squirrel conservation.
Bob Bradley, retired vet and red squirrel expert from Cumbria thought that the squirrel pox virus was most likely spread where reds and greys came into contact - at feeding and nest sites. He showed the group special breeding and feeding boxes he had developed to reduce the risk of virus spread by allowing access to reds only.
Squirrel nest box
In my capacity as FWAG Adviser, I told the group how they could apply for 80% grants for work to help red squirrels in the area under the Forestry Commission English Woodland Grant Scheme. I outlined work that had been carried out by the hosts, Hugh and Jane Kemp, to improve the habitat for reds including reducing the proportion of large-seeded broadleaves in the tree planting mix, which tend to give greys a competitive advantage over reds. I told the group "It is interesting how conservation is not always simple! The initial plan to convert conifer woodland to native broadleaves, which seemed the right thing to do 10 years ago, had to be amended when the red squirrels were discovered".
Information on the presence of both reds and greys is vital so that targeted control of grey squirrels can be planned around the reserve and prevent one of the few remaining populations of red squirrels in the Dales becoming just a fond memory. A squirrel survey form can be obtained from the Dales Countryside Museum, or contact Matt Neale on 01969 666220. Local residents Roy and Margaret Hill are also keen to hear from people living in the Upper Wensleydale area who are willing to help to co-ordinate sightings and can be contacted on 01969 667383.
last updated: 31/03/2008 at 10:50
Have Your Say
What are your thoughts on grey squirrels? Should they be 'controlled', or should we let nature take its course?
David F M Helliwell
Mike Grace, Wensleydale
Angela G Wood