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Watching Red Squirrels in the Yorkshire Dales
On a trip to Anglesey a few years ago I was lucky enough to see a thriving colony of red squirrels and even to meet the head of an organisation responsible for conservation across the region: Dr Craig Shuttleworth of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales. Dr Shuttleworth gave me a leaflet about red squirrels with a map of Welsh populations and their distribution that dated back to 2000. The paper showed that this endangered species remain in just a few small pockets across the region and that these pockets have remained unchanged for 15 years. That is apart from on the Island of Anglesey, where there are more than 500 red squirrels –representing the largest population in Wales. This boom is despite the fact that red squirrels were nearly extinct on Anglesey in 1997. The success is directly due to a pioneering conservation project on the island run by the trust, which focusses on the systematic eradication of grey squirrels.
Grey squirrels are a major factor in the decline of our native squirrel due to the fact that they carry the disease, squirrel pox, which is lethal to red squirrels. Grey squirrels that dare to cross the bridge off the mainland are relentlessly trapped. The island has now become such a safe haven for the reds that recently these indigenous species have begun crossing onto the mainland. In response the Trust has also begun to control populations of greys on the mainland and is successfully encouraging this steady spread of the red squirrel population. At the same time the Trust concentrates on breeding red squirrels in captivity for release and in the enhancement of woodland habitats.
I couldn’t help but compare Anglesey’s thriving red squirrel colony with the scarcity of populations of red squirrels here in Yorkshire, where they are limited to the Dales. And so I went to find out for myself how Yorkshire’s red squirrels are faring and to meet Dales wildlife photographer Simon Phillpotts, who is passionate about red squirrel conservation and has spent years getting to know his local population. We set off from Hawes and before long were driving down a track into a hidden valley with larch and fir plantations on one side of the track. It was clear the woodland had also been recently planted with more native species.
The landscape was breathtaking. There was a snow covering on all the branches and the tops of the walls were coated in white. We parked and then headed down a path on foot to Simon’s hide. I love a fresh covering of snow because it shows signs of wildlife so clearly. Roe deer slots and rabbit tracks criss-crossed the path. Then, as we got closer to the hide, the star-shaped prints of red squirrel appeared. Beside the hide were bins full of squirrel and bird feed and as Simon opened the hatches I spotted a welcoming committee. Several squirrels had heard our approach and were sitting there waiting to be fed.
This was very different to most of my wildlife watching experiences. Usually keeping quiet and ‘stealth-like’ is essential. But the more noise we made the more the woodland came alive with squirrels and birds. We decided to photograph the squirrels without using the hide. The hide had been necessary when Simon first began to photograph these squirrels several years ago. But we could now walk amongst them. The squirrels followed when Simon called them and would even go to a spot to look for hazelnuts if Simon pointed to it – it was like being with the pied piper of squirrels.
It was incredible to watch as they ran along dry stone walls, across fallen trees and perched on stumps looking for the hazelnuts Simon had put out for them. Their mouths opened to fit in a hazelnut perfectly and they could crack into their hard shells in seconds to get at the tasty kernel inside. Meanwhile some nuts were stashed away for another day. I was so busy photographing these charismatic creatures, I hadn’t looked at my watch and it was 1.15 before my stomach began to rumble. I had a bite of lunch whilst still photographing the squirrels. It was fun to see the inquisitive squirrels investigate anything we put down, including our cameras, and especially Simon’s food container! Each character was different. Some had a playful nature and were bolder and more mischievous than others.
Among them one character stood out. This squirrel had a slightly kinked tail and, Simon explained, was the cheekiest. He had named this one Floppy. Squirrels do not hibernate but grow thick winter coats and prominent ear tufts. As I watched, it began to snow and I noticed the flakes melt as they landed on the backs of the squirrels. The woodland was beginning to look transformed as each branch took on a new coating of snow. As we left the wood a roe deer doe and her fawn cross the path in front of us.
I got back to my cottage and started to review some of the 900 photographs I had taken that day. I know these photographs would not have been possible without Simon whose time and dedication has turned these squirrels into experienced photographic models. I spent every hour of daylight there was watching how they interacted. The females were beginning to come into season and the males were starting to bother them. Their courtship display was among the most fun things to watch. It began with the sound of frantic chattering and a rapid scratching of claws against bark as two or more squirrels chased each other round and round tree trucks. These pairs also ran along thin branches and leaped from tree to tree before dropping to the ground to chase one another round and round the trunk again.
After watching them for three days I was conscious that so many people have never even seen a red squirrel and that nowadays you have to make a special trip to go and find them. When I arrived in Hawes Simon had joked that I would be sick of red squirrels by the time I left but in fact I was sad to leave. Perhaps Yorkshire could learn something about red squirrel conservation from the success of the project in Angelsey?Author: Robert E Fuller