Wild Encounters#5: Sciurus vulgaris
28th November 2017
I had been trying to catch sight of red squirrels in the wild for a few years. On trips to the Lakes or Scotland I had spent hours watching in woodlands to catch brief glimpses in the trees, but now in a woodland in my native Yorkshire they seemed to be everywhere, clambering up trees, scampering across logs and even running around my feet. The conifer woodland in Snaizeholme in Wensleydale is refuge for red squirrels who thrive there, thanks to its isolation and a conservation programme by local landowners.
Red squirrels are native to Britain, but now endangered due to the spread of the American grey squirrels introduced here in Victorian times. When greys colonise an area they quickly wipe out our native reds, not because they fight them directly, but because they compete for resources and spread a pox which is deadly to red squirrels. Wild red squirrels have all but disappeared from most of England but partnerships like Red Squirrels Northern England are working hard to monitor and maintain pockets of red squirrel resistance in the Cumbria, Northumbria and Merseyside. Thanks to the dedication of conservationists and volunteers, Snaizeholme is one of several sites in the north of England where red squirrels have a stronghold, at the frontier between Scotland’s reds and England’s greys.
I think I remember watching red squirrels jumping through the trees in our village as a child, but I’m not sure if this recollection is correct, as by the 1970’s the species were already well in decline . My memories may be getting mixed up with Tufty, the famous safety squirrel of the time whose TV adverts taught us how to cross the road, (with the help of Policeman Badger, Mrs Wise Owl and the careless Willy Weasel. The creators obviously saw that British wildlife has a lot to teach us about road safety!) Although we are far more likely to encounter grey squirrels in real life, the red squirrel still remains in our collective memory. On checking again recently I notice that the squirrel that pops up in Get Out More branding is clearly a red, despite the fact that we are only likely to encounter greys at any of our forest schools.
When we got to Mirk Pot farmhouse, a red squirrel sat obligingly on a gate post, much to everyone’s delight. The walk took us through dark conifer woodlands where squirrels could be seen cavorting in and under the trees. After a mile or so the path opened out in a viewing area where we could watch about a dozen squirrels who didn’t seem to be shy at all. The Kemp family who farm here planted the conifers about 40 years ago with the intention of growing Christmas trees, but were thrilled when a pair of red squirrels moved in. They wanted to share the experience with others so worked with the Yorkshire Dales National Park to create a management plan and a visitor viewing area. The woodland is managed for the squirrels and special squirrel feeders ensure their natural food supply does not run short and visitors have a good chance of spotting these wonderful creatures. Despite the cold, we watched them for ages, their energy and playfulness adding enchantment, colour and warmth to a grey autumn day.
(To visit Snaizeholme book in advance with the Dales Countryside Museum, who ring through and let the landowners know to expect you. On arrival post £5 through the farmhouse letter box. The Little White Bus service runs from Hawes to Snaizeholme between April – October or by arrangement)