According to Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE), there are approximately 138,000 red squirrels in the UK. For some people this may sound like a lot, but the grey squirrel population currently stands at 2.5 million. Due to the difficulty of monitoring these animals accurately, this number could be even greater.
Undoubtedly a much-loved aspect of British wildlife, red squirrels have faced many challenges in recent years, predominantly the impact of invasive grey squirrels and the subsequent squirrel pox that has decimated populations. While grey squirrels are immune to the disease, reds have a mortality rate of 100%. The virus causes skin ulcers, swelling and scabbing, and after contracting it, most animals die within two weeks.
However, our native reds still have strongholds in northern England, including Northumberland, North Yorkshire and several sites in Cumbria. For a chance of seeing this elusive mammal, it is important to know where exactly to look. Two particularly good spots for Cumbrian red squirrels are Aira Force on the Glencoyne Farm trail and Grasmere. There was an outbreak of squirrel pox at Grasmere in 2016, with more than ten confirmed cases in the valley. However, as a result of the hard work of the Grasmere Red Squirrel Group, the population of reds pulled through.
With the squirrel pox virus having such drastic consequences, it can be difficult to know what the best solution is. In 2012, RSNE established a monitoring programme that samples 300 forests and gardens in northern England each spring, using trail cameras to record where red squirrels can be found. The Wildlife Trusts are working to improve the red squirrel’s favoured habitat of coniferous woodland, initiating reintroduction schemes and combating the presence of grey squirrels in a few carefully selected areas where red squirrels face the greatest risk.
If you are interested in the red squirrels of northern England and want to learn more about their status in Cumbria, Red Squirrels Northern England Project Officer Simon O’Hare is doing a talk on Monday 5th February and will be sharing updates on how red squirrels are faring and explaining why it is so important to protect them. The event is taking place at Kirkby Stephen Friends Meeting House. For more information take a look at the Cumbria Wildlife Trust.
Have a read of my post about filming red squirrels in Lockerbie here.