By Denis O’Connor, Wharfedale Naturalists Society

HEADING north to Galloway in southwest Scotland, before we crossed the border we passed a more diffuse boundary, that between alien grey squirrels and our native reds.

Scotland, along with parts of northern England, is still the stronghold of the red squirrel, although even in Scotland there are several established populations of greys, particularly around Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth.

From our holiday base in the small village of Kirkcowan we explored parts of the huge Galloway Forest Park, finding no squirrels until at Kirroughtree, east of Newton Stewart, bird feeders promised them easy pickings. Two peanut feeders each had a red squirrel suspended upside down by its back paws while it plucked out peanuts with its front ones.

A dedicated squirrel feeder attracted a third animal which lifted the lid and clambered half inside to emerge each time with a nut (pictured). This one differed from the others in having retained its ear tufts which develop during the winter at the start of the breeding season but are usually lost by the summer.

In Wharfedale, grey squirrels had taken over from reds by the late 1960s. However, by 2004 reds were discovered in Greenfield Forest in Langstrothdale, probably having spread across from Cumbria. Part of the forest has now been designated as England’s 17th red squirrel reserve.

Last summer there was an unprecedented southward movement of red squirrels within Wharfedale with sightings from Kettlewell, Grass Wood, Beamsley and Ilkley, almost as though the squirrels had sailed down the Wharfe, disembarking at various points.

A few of these may have escaped from the captive breeding programme for reds at Kilnsey Park. It is also possible that the Greenfield population had undergone a temporary summer expansion.

Whatever the explanation, most of the sightings came from gardens with bird feeders which, as at Kirroughtree in Scotland, prove an irresistible lure to both reds and greys. When both species are present consequences for the reds are fatal for they have no immunity to the deadly squirrelpox carried by the greys and usually die within a week of contact. The last sighting in lower Wharfedale last year was in September.

This year there has been just one reported sighting, from a garden at Norwood Edge in early June, perhaps a survivor from last summer’s expansion which had been safely isolated in the nearby conifer plantation, where it is just possible that there could be a surviving population of red squirrels. Let us hope so!