The last safe haven for red squirrels on the English mainland is under unprecedented threat from an invasion of grey squirrels.
Conservationists protecting the native reds in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, say sightings of grey squirrels on the fringes of the forest have escalated in recent months and there have been more than a dozen greys spotted in the past four weeks alone.
Kielder is the only place that grey squirrels – which threaten the reds by bringing disease and competition for food – that have yet to establish themselves in mainland England.
An estimated 140,000 red squirrels remain in the UK, with just ten per cent of those in England and several thousand of them in Kielder.
Nick Mason, project manager for Red Squirrels Northern England, said until now Kielder had been a “very safe place for red squirrels”, with only “occasional sightings” of greys here and there near the forest.
The recent spate of sightings was “worrying”, he said, and conservationists are stepping up their efforts to try to protect the safe haven.
Mr Mason said they planned to use the new cash next year to install 40 new motion-activated camera traps in remote parts of the woodland to detect squirrel movements as part of an “early warning system”.
They also plan to recruit up to 50 new volunteers to monitor the cameras for the grey infiltrators and either alert them when an animal is spotted or “find and kill it” themselves.
Mr Mason said volunteers were trained to kill the greys humanely, without using firearms. The main method used is live capture using cage traps.
“We decant the animal to a hessian sack and the animal is knocked on the head with a ‘priest’ – a little stick”, he explained.
In total 1,250 volunteers are expected to be recruited to “community-based rapid response teams” nationwide through the new lottery funding, although not all the volunteers will be involved in killing squirrels.
Most of the UK’s red squirrels are in Scotland, though there are also populations on the Isle of Wight and Anglesey protected by the natural barrier of the sea.
Funding will also be spent in Merseyside, where there is an enclave of red squirrels living near the coast. Conservationists are planning to extend the “red squirrel protection zone”, culling greys in the urban areas surrounding the reds’ habitat.
“We want to kill as few grey squirrels as possible to save as many reds as possible,” Mr Mason said.
Even when disease isn’t a factor the reds can be lost because greys are more adaptable and breed faster, out-competing the reds for food and resources.
Grey squirrels, which are native to North America, are estimated to number about 2.5 million in the UK.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 11 Sep 2015.
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