So far on my walks along Isaac’s Tea Trail I’ve only seen one red squirrel, but there are plenty around in the North Pennines. My sighting is now a little red dot on the map on Red Squirrel Northern England’s website.
The survival of red squirrels in the area is partly thanks to a lot of work by voluntary groups and land managers, co-ordinated by Russell Tait, Conservation Officer for Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE). He manages seven full-time rangers and 10 seasonal contractors as well as liaising with the 30 volunteer groups across the north of England.
I join him on a visit to a family in Nenthead who regularly see red squirrels in the trees behind their house. Kim and her daughter Elsa keep the squirrels’ feed boxes topped up with food – it takes great teamwork to reach the highest box.
A strategically-placed square of velcro on each feed box helps Russell and his team monitor the squirrel population. “Any loose hair sticks to the velcro and we can check whether it’s red or grey hair,” he says. “If we see that grey squirrels are in the area we can then set traps for them. “ The greys are killed as humanely as possible, removing them from an area where they would compete for food with the native red squirrels and could infect them with squirrelpox and other viruses.
As well as the Hairy Velcro Trick, Russell sets up special cameras to monitor feed boxes, here photographing two squirrels at once.
“The support from volunteers and land managers is fantastic,” says Russell. “We do regular surveys at 300 different sites and they show that the reds are doing very well. We’re confident that red squirrels won’t die out because people are so passionate about them – some of the voluntary group meetings I attend go on long into the night.”
Red squirrels are undeniably cute, but Russell believes their popularity is down to much more than Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin or Tufty the road safety squirrel. “They are the most stunning creatures, it’s such a treat to see one” he says. “I was leading a guided walk of 30 people and the moment when they all saw a red squirrel for the very first time was spine-tingling.”
As Russell fixes another feed box onto a tree behind Kim’s house she says: “The red squirrels just fit with the landscape and you can’t not look at one until it’s out of sight. It’s as if they offer you a reconnection with your heritage, the countryside we’re rooted in.”
Kim is a member of the Alston Moor Red Squirrel Group which keeps an eye out for any grey squirrels as well as recording sightings of reds. Russell says it’s often not until greys are sighted that local people become active in conserving the reds. “There’s less interest in areas where grey squirrels haven’t yet arrived,” he says “But really the red squirrels need people looking out for them everywhere.”
Kim and Elsa and other volunteers in the North Pennines are doing their bit, keeping the feed boxes in the area filled with a yummy mix of nuts and seeds – if ever I forget my packed lunch on a walk I might raid one of these boxes.