Visitors to the Yorkshire Dales National Park (YDNP) delight in seeing red squirrels scampering along wall tops and performing acrobatics amongst the trees. 

The good news is that the yearly monitoring programme in its seventh consecutive year shows the reds population across the northern England range is stable.

Yes, in the northern Dales the reds are holding their own on a par with notable red squirrel territories such as the Highlands, Scottish Borders, Formby, near Southport, and Dorset’s Brownsea Island.

In a cafe below the Howgill Fells I meet Gary Murphy. In charge of conservation efforts in the Upper Eden Valley, he is a full-time red squirrel ranger who also assists the Sedbergh area. This has only relatively recently seen the return of red squirrels after they were pushed out over a century ago by the greys.

grey squirrel

Murphy says it is thanks to tireless conservation work from local rangers and volunteers that the area has become a red stronghold. He explains that volunteers play a vital role, both trapping grey squirrels and monitoring their whereabouts. Here in the YDNP there are active groups in Sedbergh, Wensleydale, Garsdale, Dentdale and Mallerstang ensuring reds remain safe.

Sedbergh groups’ territory includes Cautley Force waterfall and environs. “We’ve probably trapped 200 to 300 greys out Cautley way and now there’s a healthy population of reds,” says Murphy. We are joined by Simon O’Hare, project manager of Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE).

The conservation partnership covers seven counties: Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, North Yorkshire, Lancashire (but for only a smidgin of the county), Merseyside and parts of Durham. The vast majority of Yorkshire, indeed of most of England, is inhabited by grey squirrels, but North Yorkshire – as in the YDNP that now extends into Cumbria – is a reds domain. “The grey squirrel was introduced to England in the late 1870s from America. It is the primary cause of the decline of the red squirrel,” says Murphy.

Grey squirrels are classed as vermin under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. “Not only is it larger than the reds and out-competes them for food in deciduous and mixed woodlands, but it is a pest. “It transmits a deadly virus, the squirrel pox virus, that is lethal to reds. “If left untreated, the virus can wipe out a whole previously thriving red squirrel population.”

Local squirrel groups are involved with raising their own funds to protect the reds on their doorstep. “It takes a hundred thousand pounds a year to employ six rangers and to buy monitoring and trapping equipment for a year’s conservation,” says Murphy. “This involves buying the traps that have the all-important task of collaring the grey squirrels.” He pauses before mentioning his group will receive over a thousand phone calls annually from people reporting grey squirrel sightings.

Red squirrel rangers will follow these up where possible and install traps in case the greys return. The traps are cages that will allow the smaller reds to escape if they inadvertently enter, but which will hold the grey squirrel.

Checking how the reds are doing across the range of northern England happens each Spring when 300 surveys take place across the red range, same time, same place, every year. Since the advent of trail cameras it is a snap. The trail cameras in the salient woods trained on the feeder boxes record photos of squirrels feeding over those 14 days. “Because of such surveillance, we can now say confidently that reds are being found in the same number of sites every year across red squirrel range,” says Murphy. “And this helps confirm that what we are doing is working.”

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