‘No cause for alarm’ in red squirrel site decline

A red squirrel in Stannington. Picture by Mark Legard
A red squirrel in Stannington. Picture by Mark Legard

This year has seen a decline in the number of sites where red squirrels were detected for the first time since the Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE) project started in 2012.

The group has just published the results of its annual red and grey squirrel survey, which once again confirms that red squirrels can still be found in seven counties in northern England. However, following two consecutive years of red squirrel range expansion, 2015 has seen a decline in the number of sites.

Red squirrels were found in 44 per cent of the sites surveyed between March and May, down from 53 per cent in 2014. Grey squirrels were found in 47 per cent of survey sites, up from 38 per cent last year.

Statistical analysis of the previous surveys between 2012 and 2014 suggests that red squirrel range remained stable during this period. Further annual surveys will determine the significance of these 2015 results and help to document these fluctuations.

These results reflect the experiences of staff and hundreds of community volunteers working in woodlands across northern England over the last twelve months. It is suspected that another mild winter and bumper wild food crops have given grey squirrels a temporary advantage over our native reds.

It is well documented that grey squirrels have the competitive edge over reds in broadleaf woodlands, therefore due to large crops of beech and hazel, this result is not unexpected. It is encouraging to see that after two years of almost perfect conditions for grey squirrels, red squirrels are still in a strong position.

RSNE project manager, Nick Mason, said: “There is no cause for alarm here as fluctuations in squirrel populations linked to environmental factors are entirely natural and beyond our control. I am so grateful to the 120 volunteers that helped us with this survey, carrying out a whopping 72 per cent of the surveys.

“It is vital that this monitoring carries on into the future to help us look at the long-term effects of brilliant local conservation efforts right across northern England. We hope 2016 will see a return to positive trends. We are also grateful to the Garfield Weston Foundation for providing us with the funding to carry out this work.”

RSNE has also looked at additional sightings of red squirrels from the same period of March to May and found that they were seen in 378 tetrads (two by two km squares) in the three-month period, demonstrating that they are still present and thriving within the same geographical range of northern England that has been recorded in the previous three years.

Stannington resident Mark Legard was delighted by the appearance of a red squirrel kitten in his garden in late May, following concerted red squirrel conservation efforts around the village. “I’ve been looking after the reds in St Mary’s Churchyard for a number of years now, but this is the first squirrel to show up in my garden,” he said.

Mark’s work in the area is complemented by RSNE contractor Peter Ernst, who has been working in Plessey Woods and Blagdon Estate to protect red squirrel populations, with red squirrels regularly seen in both places.

These results show just how important it is that communities continue to cherish and protect their red squirrels. To read the full report, enter your squirrel sightings or to find out how to get involved, visit www.rsne.org.uk