By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

According to Wharfedale Naturalists records, “between 1949 and 1955 red squirrels were still being seen around our area. By 1969, however, grey squirrels were to be seen in all areas and reds had virtually vanished.”

Much more recently, since 2016, red squirrels have been regular visitors to Nethergill Farm, near Oughtershaw in Langstrothdale, encouraged by tree planting and the provision of hazelnut feeders over a period of 14 years. They were thought to originate from the nearby Greenfield Forest Red Squirrel Reserve.

Until recently they were not being reported from further south. However, since June this year there have been sightings of reds from Kettlewell, Grass Wood, Beamsley and from opposite ends of Ilkley.

(I took the accompanying photo sadly not in Wharfedale but in Scotland – note that the squirrel has no ear tufts as they only develop these for the winter.)

A suggestion that these reds had escaped from Kilnsey Park, where there is a well established red squirrel captive breeding programme was initially denied. However it was later discovered that there had been a mass escape of at least four red squirrels perhaps dating back to July and possibly as a result of vandalism, as a hole was discovered in the perimeter fence of one of the enclosures.

An alternative explanation, that the reds could be moving south from Greenfield where the conifers are being progressively felled, now seems less likely.

Whatever the explanation, red squirrels are now present in our area again, albeit in small numbers. Conifers are their preferred habitat for they are better adapted to eating the small conifer seeds than greys but they are also likely to turn up in gardens on bird feeders.

Jamie Roberts of Kilnsey has an ambition to remove grey squirrels from Upper Wharfedale and repopulate with reds. This would obviously require cooperation between landowners, conservation organisations and volunteers. One of the difficulties of such a project would be the development of an exclusion zone of five kilometres to keep out greys, as operated by the 17 red squirrel reserves presently in the north of England.

In the meantime, it is once again worth keeping an eye out for red squirrels in Lower Wharfedale. Problems will obviously arise when they inevitably come into contact with greys, with the reds thought to still have no resistance to the squirrelpox carried by the greys.

It is perhaps unlikely but it would be nice to think that these red squirrels will survive, having developed herd immunity to the disease – there’s a topical notion!