Nature Notes

By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

A WEEK in a woodland-edge cottage on the south side of the Scottish highlands near Pitlochry was enlivened by the antics of red squirrels coming to a feeder attached to the rail of decking behind the cottage. We saw several chasing through the trees but they only ever approached the feeder singly, pushing up the lid with practised ease to delve inside before eating the nut held between front paws (pictured).

I suspected that these were juveniles for they lacked the large ear tufts characteristic of the adults and had pure red coats without the tinges of grey which feature in their winter coats. I was intrigued by their all-red tails for I have seen them further north in the forests around Aviemore with yellowish tails.

It was good to see squirrels encouraged to come to a feeder in contrast to our English gardens where bird feeders are designed to thwart the efforts of their resourceful grey cousins. The feeder would significantly increase the squirrels’ chances of surviving their first winter for the mortality rate of juveniles is about 80 per cent.

In Britain, red squirrels, with a total population of 140,000, are vastly outnumbered by the 2.5 million greys, originally introduced from North America as ornamental animals in the 1870s, which have been pushing the reds further and further north ever since. The reds’ stronghold is now Scotland, extending into parts of northern England, with conservation projects relying on eradication of greys in areas where the species meet and the creation of buffer zones. Red Squirrels Northern England is a conservation partnership which includes the Yorkshire Dales and which relies for support on volunteers and land managers.

Although there is no direct conflict between the two species, the larger greys outcompete reds in broad-leaf woodlands and, with a more varied diet, can live there at much higher population densities. Most crucially, greys carry a pox virus which appears not to harm them but which is usually fatal if contracted by reds.

Coniferous forests are better suited to reds than greys and Cumbrian woodlands with red squirrel populations around Mallerstang and Garsdale have been incorporated into the Yorkshire Dales National Park. In Wharfedale red squirrels were reported last year from Nethergill Farm near Oughtershaw, having probably moved from the nearby Greenfield Red Squirrel Reserve.

For those wishing to know more, Ian Court, a wildlife conservation officer, will give a talk on red squirrel conservation in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, at Christchurch, the Grove, Ilkley at 7.30pm on 28th November as part of Wharfedale Naturalists’ winter programme. Visitors are welcome.