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Wildlife Diary: May 2011 - Red Squirrels in the Yorkshire Dales

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Going Nuts about a surprise visitor

Going Nuts about a surprise visitor

Wolds wildlife artist Robert Fuller reports on the difficulties of photographing a strange of animal mating dance as featured in The Yorkshire Post May 14, 2011. Click here to see article on the Yorkshire Post website

I SPENT a week in the Yorkshire Dales last month. It is an area that I haven't visited since I was a child. But a tip off about some great wildlife watching opportunities tempted me across. My main focus for the week was black grouse that live high up on the exposed moorland. April and May are a busy time for them as they carry out their courtship in an area known as a 'lek'. The majority of the display happens between 4am and 8am so it left plenty of time in the day to seek out other species.

During my trip I photographed tame pheasants, red grouse and dippers but most significantly I watched and photographed my first Yorkshire red squirrel. With the exception of a few scattered strongholds, red squirrels are now critically low in most of the country and virtually non-existent in this county. Habitat loss has had its effect, but the biggest cause of their demise is their cousins the grey squirrels which were introduced from North America in 1876.

The greys are larger and can out-compete the reds, but their most deadly effect is that they have spread a parapox virus to the reds. This virus can completely devastate a community of red squirrels and is one of the reasons why we now only have small fragmented populations in a few areas of the country. So it was a wonderful surprise to come across a thriving pocket of them on this trip. It was on my way back from photographing black grouse one morning that I spotted a triangular red road sign depicting a red squirrel, warning motorists of their presence.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw one running along the wall and to my amazement using the signpost itself to climb down the wall before scampering across the road. It was if it had been set up: as if to say 'it's true - it really is a sign to let you know I'm here'. I couldn't believe my luck. I jumped out of my car with my camera only to see another one in the tree above. Red squirrels used to be widespread in deciduous and mixed forests but are now mainly confined to coniferous plantations, where the food source doesn't favour the greys. I was interested to see that this small but thriving community of reds was living in just such an area.

Each morning on my return from photographing black grouse, I spotted red squirrels running on top of the stone walls surrounding a remote village near Hawes. It turned out that a few of the villagers were tempting them out of the forest and into their gardens with hazel nuts. After getting my fill of Yorkshire red squirrels I continued out of the village and back to the main road, some 8 miles away. A small patch of mixed deciduous woodland flanked the roadside.

Deciduous woodland contains a mixture of all of those traditional trees that we think of as representing the English countryside and are a refreshing contrast from the monotony of the blocks of conifers which look so alien in their environment. But there scampering through the leaf litter was a grey squirrel. A few trees further on a second. Although there is a lot of work being done to control the greys, I couldn't believe how close they were to that precious community of reds only a few miles back.

Environmental agents now often favour new plantations of native deciduous forest over block plantations of conifers. It really makes you wonder whether the current thinking, which leaves the pathway open to the spread of grey squirrels into the remaining red squirrel strongholds, is such a good idea.

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