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27 November 2014

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You are in: North Yorkshire > Nature > Nature features > Seeing Red(s)

Red squirrel eating nuts

'Squirrel nutkin'

Seeing Red(s)

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.  

Group of walkers

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.

"The Widdale area near Hawes is one of the few areas left in the Dales where red squirrels still thrive"

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

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.

Phil Lyth

last updated: 31/03/2008 at 10:50
created: 28/04/2006

Have Your Say

What are your thoughts on grey squirrels? Should they be 'controlled', or should we let nature take its course?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Ian Wadsworth
Greys are vermin. exterminate them ALL

Gill Flatters
It's not as if eradicating them from our country will exterminate them. They will continue to thrive in their native country and hopefully then our native reds can get back to normal populations. Cull the greys.

Paul Shipman
Put grey squirrels on the menu - it would save fish stocks.

I live in the lake district there they are classed as vermin and they are shot we here firmly believe its the only way to stop the reds from getting the"pox " virus

Norris Atthey
The grey squirrel effect on reds is not the only reason for exterminating them. Their decimation of song bird populations, damage to trees, gardens etc and property should also be mentioned as all in all they are a total pest including attacking people. Do parents want their children attacked by greys when feeding birds?

Arnold Dearing
As an alien species to the UK, of course Grey Squirrels should be culled. The introduction of alien species has devastated wildlife all over the world, probably worse in Australia than in the UK. Lets have a concerted effort to drastically reduce the grey squirrel population if not wipe them out.

David F M Helliwell
Regardless of whether it is the grey squirrel's 'fault' that it is here, the undeniable facts are that it is NOT an indigenous species, and that its presence here is leading to the extinction of an indigenous species. It is not alone in this, as several other introduced species (often for profit) are doing exactly the same ... eg. the American freshwater crayfish which is steadily killing off the indigenous UK variety. The fault lies with us (doesn't it always?), and is essentially just one more form of pollution for which we are responsible. I heard someone on Radio4 the other day say that dinosaurs were an unsuccessful species, but they were around for a couple of hundred million years without doing much harm to the planet ... we've only been around for a few hundred thousand years but are pretty close to wrecking the place completely. How is 'unsuccessful' defined, I wonder?

Lorraine Wise
Grey squirrels should be controlled. They should be kept out of "red squirrel territory"

Duncan Quick
Tricky one! I would only like to consider a measure of control on the grey squirrel so both red and grey have the same chance of survival, unfortunately the grey has a edge on the red with decease, the perfect solution would of course be make the red immune to squirrel pox as food is not the issue, treatment [if one exists]would be the preference ,administered in the existing reserves to first increase numbers . and then natural infiltration could be allow. It would take time but the red squirrel been on the receiving end of rough treatment now for over a hundred years and things must get better. I must say I have never heard so many bigoted remarks coming from so-called lovers of wildlife, extremists the lot of you, you should be ashamed.

i like them they are pretty cool but they just dont belong her in britain. its not their fault though that they are here its them americans!

Steve Sowerby
It doesn't seem that long ago since both red and grey were seen around North Yorkshire. I'm not that old but now there is only the grey seen day to day.I'd love to see more of the reds but suspect that whatever we try to do, nature will take its course and the greys will be what are seen by our children's children.I'd love to be wrong on this.

send em back or kill them

Norris Atthey
People need to know the legal status of the grey to realise how serious the authorities take it as a pest. It is illegal to release a grey back into the wild or allow a grey to escape. It is also illegal to keep a grey in captivity without a licence from Defra. It is also an offence to transport a grey, again without a licence from Defra. Transport of an abandoned or injured grey to a place of treatment however is legal.The RCVS however instruct the vets they have to be aware of the law and also state that euthenasia is an acceptable form of treatment.

Norris Atthey
The evidence is overwhelming.Greys in reds dead

Lucy Stratton
Thanks Aggus for the link to (The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites)it's great to know not everyone is blind to the wonders of the grey squirrel. Amused at the anti-foreign language used against the 'grey', reminds me of the BNPs similar attitude to human 'foreigners'. People learn to appreciate both the wonderful red and grey squirrels; they aren't that different! The hatred and language the so-called wildlife lovers

John Murray
Grey squirrels are vermin and should be destroyed. They have eaten their way into my loft and are practising "Come Dancing" each night about 5 feet above my head.

John Galvin
Grey Squirrels are little more than tree rats and certainly should be controlled to encourage the return of our native Red Squirrell. They were controlled in the 50's why not now

Mike Grace, Wensleydale
Grey Squirrels should be 'Controlled', and Native red Squirrels should be encouraged.........the 'Well Intentioned' introduction of Grey's shows yet again our human (Yes, I mean us) fallibility! Then please follow it up with 'Control' of erroneously introduced Mink, which also decimate our Native Fauna.

Angus Macmillan
See Professor Acorn's website against the killing of grey squirrels www.grey-squirrel, (The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites)

Kevin Heads
Greys were introduced by us humans I believe, so it's not really their fault. I think that Nature can look after itself and doesn't need our arrogant intervention. I would love to see the Red Squirrel more prominant throughout the country but not at the expense of the Grey.

Richard Cope
All native species should be protected from a non-native species that threatens their survival, some kind of control is needed.

Nick Thompson
It isn't natural for grey squirrels to exist in Europe, so leaving them alone is not really letting nature take its course. I see no problem in our trying to intervene to reverse our own mistakes, particularly in a limited way.

Vanessa Coombs
They should be erradicated so that our own Red Squirrel can make a come back

Pamela Pinnegar
Greys should definately be controlled, as we already have "introduced" mink that kill our native AND tame creatures, we WANT our reds!!

Angela G Wood
Grey squirrels should be exterminated. Goathland in N Yorks would be an ideal site to start a red squirrel colony as it is biologically isolated.

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