WILDLIFE COLUMN: Coquetdale Squirrel Group

Red squirrel. Photo by Peter Skillen.
Red squirrel. Photo by Peter Skillen.

HELPING TO SAVE A THREATENED NATIVE

Northumberland is one of the last havens in England for the red squirrel.

While Kielder Forest is home to the largest-remaining population of red squirrels in the country, two other major strongholds, Harwood and Kidland Forests, border onto the beautiful Coquet Valley.

Throughout the valley, as well as in many other parts of the county, pockets of these special creatures still exist and are regularly sighted.

This is a fragile state of affairs, however, and, without the continued support of Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE) and many volunteer groups working across the county, the grey squirrel, of which there are two-and-a-half million in Britain, will inevitably finally drive the remaining reds to possible extinction within a few short years.

The greys invade the red territories, often carrying with them the deadly squirrel pox virus and not only spread the disease, but eat up the precious food supplies.

Greys, being far larger and more omnivorous, are able to digest acorns and other nuts when they are under-ripe and still indigestible for the reds.

The good news is that following two months of autumn survey work by RSNE and the volunteer groups in 300 different woodlands and gardens across Northern England, red squirrels are continuing to recover ground.

The survey found red squirrels in five per cent more sites during autumn 2013 than in spring 2013, following similar improvements in 2012.

This is despite a 15 per cent increase in the number of sites with grey squirrels.

Especially encouraging is that RSNE has proved that grey control has enabled reds to repossess previous red strongholds which had been overtaken by greys, notably two areas to the south of Hexham and at Wallington Hall, where the delightful sight of feeding reds can once again be seen from a hide in the grounds.

RSNE cannot do this work alone. There are many volunteer-led red-squirrel groups in the county supported by an umbrella organisation called Northern Red Squirrels.

In Upper Coquetdale, the last five years has seen the growth of Coquetdale Squirrel Group (CSG), which was started in 2008 by Jeanne Casken who, having visited the area, chose to make it her home, loving the county’s special qualities and its wildlife.

Moved to help the threatened red squirrel, Jeanne soon encouraged others to join her and in 2012, in recognition of her work to improve the habitat for red squirrels, helping them to survive, both through direct action to stem the incursion of grey squirrels and in raising public awareness, she was awarded one of the coveted Northumberland National Park Awards in the Distinctive Place Category.

Monitoring and trapping are the foremost activities of the group. These require dedicated volunteers to set up and monitor hair tubes, feeding stations, sometimes cameras and, where necessary, traps.

The hair tube is an open ended small rectangular box containing a sticky pad and tempting bait. If a squirrel passes through the tube to feed on the bait it will leave traces of tail hair on the pad.

The species visiting, either red or grey, can then be identified by these hairs when viewed under a microscope. Steps to trap and humanely cull the grey can then be put in place as it is illegal to release a grey squirrel back into the wild.

Putting hazelnuts in feeder boxes in gardens or other places frequented by reds, with permission of landowners, is actively encouraged and can help at times of lean pickings during the winter, but also during spring and early summer when the kits are being born.

This ensures the adult females are kept in good suckling/feeding condition.

Maintaining awareness and encouraging the involvement of the wider community remains a vital part of the group’s work and anyone can help by reporting sightings, primarily of greys, and contacting CSG on a dedicated mobile number – 07583 679162 or email ispysquirrel @hotmail.co.uk

For those interested, there is more information on the group’s website, which can be found via a link from Rothbury’s Index website.

Fund-raising to support these activities is a vital part of the work of CSG and, to this end, a summer fair is to be held on Saturday, June 28, in the Jubilee Hall, Rothbury, from 10am to 2.30pm.

There will be a raffle, tombola and a variety of stalls selling local produce and crafts.

There will also be children’s games, environmental schoolwork on display and some lovely red-squirrel items, including kitchenware and greetings cards for sale. Homemade refreshments will be available and entry is free.

If you are enthusiastic about supporting red squirrels, Coquetdale Squirrel Group will be very pleased to welcome you there.

If you would like to know more about any aspect of our work, or would be interested in becoming involved in any way, please speak to one of our group members on the day.