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Where to see red squirrels in Yorkshire and why they are worth looking for
Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day and a timely reminder that one of Britain’s most beautiful species needs our help. Red squirrels are an increasingly rare sight in England. Their decline is mainly due to a deadly pox carried by grey squirrels. But the loss of conifer woodland across the country is also a major factor since red squirrels like to feed on the seeds in the pine cones.
Plans are afoot for a new forest along the M62 corridor. The Woodland Trust is planning to plant 50m native tree species. It will take 25 years before this new woodland is established but when it is it will be the boost that red squirrels need.
Simon 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 transform 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.
Visits to Simon’s red squirrels is by appointment only. But the good news is there is now also a place where members of the public can go and see them – something I think everyone should do if we as a nation are going to value these creatures in the future and work towards protecting them. It was established by farmers Hugh Kemp and his wife Jane after they encouraged a tiny squirel colony in Snaizeholme by feeding them. There is now a Snaizeholme red squirrel viewing area in what has become the Widdale Red Squirrel Reserve. Courtesy of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and local landowners, the public can now visit the viewing point to see them in the wild. The viewpoint and surrounding woodland is said to offer an excellent chance of getting superb views of red squirrels as they visit a feeder in a woodland clearing. Click here to find out more about it.Author: Robert E Fuller