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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.

In the meantime there are a few tiny pockets of populations in England where you can still see them. Formby, along the Merseyside coastline, is one of them. I watched a colony on National Trust land there some years ago now and the painting below is of a squirrel I photographed there. The National Trust has published a map of a walk where you are likely to pass through a colony of red squirrels. To see it follow this link.
Squirrel of Formby, painted by Robert E Fuller
There are also few isolated pockets of red squirrel colonies in the Yorkshire Dales. In 2015, I visited the Dales photographer Simon Phillpott who has a hide where he has been photographing the characterful creatures for many years. It was a wonderful experience.
Myself and Simon Phillpotts, right

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.

Squirrel Nutkin, painted by Robert E Fuller

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.


7 comments on Where to see red squirrels in Yorkshire and why they are worth looking for

  1. Very interesting article, Robert. Great photographs and paintings, by the way.

    I have been photographing red squirrels in Eskdale, Cumbria, for nearly six years; seeing the highs and lows, including a major squirrelpox outbreak which killed all the adults except for my little star ‘Belinda’, and a few juveniles who, fortunately, were not integrated into the colony at the time.

    You mention Simon calling the squirrels and pointing to food. I also do this, and it works much of the time. ‘Belinda’ used to take nuts from my hand, but she re-located in January 2016, and it was over six months before I next saw her. She is now not quite so friendly, but still willing to pose nicely. Amazingly, I estimate that she is now eight years old. Two of her daughters, from 2015 and 2017 can also be seen, and I’m hoping that the latter will take over where ‘Belinda’ leaves off. Potentially, ‘Belinda’ travels a mile to reach the guest house each day.

    I have another little star called ‘Caroline’. She is very trusting, and will often allow me to walk right up to her, as long as I keep talking. Like other mammals, I am certain that squirrels recognise humans by sight, sound, and smell. In 2016, ‘Caroline’ introduced her son ‘Derek’ to me; he is now the dominant male, following the demise of his father, and will pose nicely. Last week, I found ‘Caroline’s drey, which lies only 100 yards from the guest house, in woodland owned by the guest house. I am hoping that, in a few weeks, ‘Caroline’ will introduce me to the class of 2018.

    I always get a buzz when I visit Forest How to see the squirrels.

  2. This week I went to Snaizehome with my sister to see the squirrels. We took a picnic lunch with us and peanuts in their shells and hazelnuts for them. After a few tantalizing glimpses of them we decided to sit it out under the pine trees and see what happened. It was incredible, we stayed for five hours! They put their tiny paws on our fingers as they ate the nuts from our hands and as the hours passed and they grew to trust us they were sitting on our knees and going through our bags to see what else they could find. Of course we only let them have the nuts! It was really funny to watch them chase each other away all the time and chatter to each other in squirrel speak. I crushed some nuts up and had a blue tit sitting on my hand and eating them and there were chaffinches, a robin, great tits and a very fat female pheasant all pecking at the nut crumbs. If I hadn’t been eaten alive by the midges I could have stayed all day. Such beautiful little creatures, it was magical and a day I will remember for ever. Not giving this info out elsewhere though, just wanted to share with someone else who loves them

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