Red Alert

Maybe it was the two border collies that flushed the creature from forest floor to the upper canopy of a scots pine, but we came across their owner ahead of us on the trail, peering upwards and taking us into his confidence. ‘There, can you see it, up in the fork, it’s got its back to us?’. Well, we did, and rejoiced. A red squirrel, beautiful chestnut hues, tufted ears, and of course the fine feathery tail. ‘I’ve seen them in the forest when I was working but in the five years since it’s the first time I’ve spotted a single one around here’.

His comments put me in mind of an encounter I had with red squirrels back in the autumn of 1992, in Madrid of all places. I watched their antics from a bench in the Retiro, the capital’s former royal park. There they appeared as ubiquitous as the grey squirrels we are so familiar with in the UK. The story of the American greys escape from captivity at the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn estate in the late 19th century, and their subsequent nationwide colonisation, is a well known one. The bigger, bolder Greys carry ‘squirrel pox’ which has little effect on them but has devastated the population of native reds. They also compete for vital food sources. Squirrels as a species do not hibernate and survive by foraging and relying on their secreted autumn stores during winter. Greys have better memories apparently so can more reliably recall where they hid their nuts and other foodstuffs, so tend to fare better.

Today a population of between 120 – 140,000 reds are confined to the most remote parts of the UK countryside, with some three quarters of their number found in Scotland. The isolated strongholds in England are mainly in the north and range from the dunes and pinewoods around Formby on the Lancashire coast to the great forest on our doorstep. Kielder in fact is home to some 50% of England’s total. On previous walks here, at the forest’s edge of mixed woodlands & waterway, I’d sensed, if not seen, the illusive reds. Their ‘dinner tables’ of moss covered trees stumps (pictured) are often littered with the chewed remains of the pinecones they favour.

I remember a retired forester friend tells me that some years ago the Forestry Commission replanted with native deciduous trees after harvesting and clearing blocks of conifer. The wildlife corridors subsequently created worked only too well in speeding up ingress by greys into the territory of the conifer preferring reds! That may have been a battle lost but the war goes on. I know landowners who trap and dispose of greys on their patch. (pictured) A natural solution though to controlling their numbers may also lie in the spread south  from Scotland of the indigenous pine marten, which is known to predate them successfully.  

Our farming neighbours at Southridge tell me they spotted both species in late 2020 – a red running a stone wall to go feeding on apple windfalls, with a grey running into their shelter belt of pines a few weeks later. Reds also spotted by neighbours in the deciduous woods (mainly birch, oak and ash) in the valley of the burn flowing out of the forest a half mile north of us. At this time of year the male is seeking a partner so potentially a good time to see chasing pairs. I reported our sighting to Red Squirrel Northern England (RSNE), an umbrella conservation body led by the Wildlife Trusts. If you live in the north and spy a red squirrel why not visit the RSNE website and leave the simple few details they ask for? It only takes a couple of minutes and your arrow on the map will help the conservationists and scientists further their work:

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