Red Squirrels 


Here in Upper Coquetdale, we are privileged to be able to see red squirrels in a number of places. Many of the forest areas are now open after the devastation of Storm Arwen and are freely accessible to everyone. A quiet walk will often reveal signs - stripped cones from the Sitka spruce are a common sight and a sure sign of red squirrels, as they need to eat a large quantity of the tiny seeds to eke out an existence in the monoculture plantations where the much bigger grey squirrel cannot survive. If you sit quietly, you may well hear a squirrel before you see it - they know you are there and will often chatter and scold you with the distinctive tut tut. If you can catch sight of one doing this, you will see the accompanying tail wagging and you may even have one drop twigs and bits of debris onto your head - they can be feisty little creatures!

Many people are lucky enough to have them visit their gardens to take food from the bird feeders. It's certainly a wonderful sight to see, but a degree of caution should be observed. At the first sign of grey squirrels, feeders should be removed or else disinfected several times a day using Virkon or a similar sterilising compound. The reason for this is the grey squirrel carries Squirrel Pox Virus, to which they are immune but unfortunately the red squirrel has not had time to develop the same immunity. It is highly contagious and there are few known cases of a red squirrel surviving an infection. It will kill a red within 10 days in the most unpleasant and painful manner imaginable. There is no treatment or vaccine available and a whole colony of reds can be wiped out by an outbreak.

The careful provision of food, however, can be a vital way of improving the over winter survival rate of juveniles, which can be as low as 15 - 20% in a hard winter. The best food to offer is whole hazelnuts, although they will take peanuts, fruit and other titbits. If they are visiting regularly, it's a good idea to put out cuttlefish bones or antlers as a source of calcium. Try not to feed them in open spaces, which leaves them open to predators and be aware of the threat from domestic cats.

The Coquetdale Squirrel group is a volunteer organisation that monitors the population in the area, provides feeding, carries out research, cares for habitat and assists in grey control. In some places, the work carried out by the group has seen an increase in red squirrel numbers, one of the few places in England that can make that claim. However, it is dependant on people prepared to give up time and we are always on the lookout for new members to help with admin, monitoring, IT, feeding and a multitude of other tasks. There is no funding from any of the large organisation such as Forestry England, the National Park, Wildlife Trust, National Trust or anywhere else - the survival of our red squirrels rests solely on volunteers and donations and grants from the public, despite them being a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. At least £2,000 a year is needed just for hazelnuts and as we expand the area we cover this will rise even higher.