Until the early 1960s, the red squirrel was a common sight across the country; an integral part of the Welsh landscape. Sadly, since the grey squirrel colonised these lands, a misconceived introduction of the Victorian era, red squirrels have largely vanished from Wales. I have been told that one of the first known sightings of a grey squirrel in mid Wales came from Rhandirmwyn schoolteacher and naturalist, Dafydd Dafis, who in 1958 stated that a child had come into school with a report of a grey squirrel. From then onwards it was downhill for the red squirrel in mid Wales, as the larger and more robust grey squirrel quickly moved into local woodlands, eating much of the available food, breeding at a vast rate and spreading squirrelpox virus, which the greys are immune to, but which is fatal to red squirrels. Grey squirrels can reach a density of up to sixteen per hectare, leaving little resource for the red squirrel. A law was passed in 1938 banning further importation of grey squirrels, but the damage had been done; inadvertently heralding the demise of the red squirrel in Britain.
We now have only a little over a thousand red squirrels hanging on in Wales, in Anglesey, in the north east of the country, and here in mid Wales. Anglesey is the real success-story in Wales; as part of a restoration project the greys have been cleared from the island and the population of reds has been boosted. Thought to be as low as 40 individuals less than 20 years ago; Anglesey is now home to as many as 700 red squirrels. The Mid Wales Red Squirrel Project (MWRSP) is a much younger project than its northern counterpart, but with the help of funding, originally through Environment Wales, a former Welsh Government funded initiative, work is getting underway to save the population of reds in mid Wales too.
The area centred round Llyn Brianne reservoir, bordered by Pontrhydfendigaid, Tregaron, Lampeter, Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells, was approved as a focal site for red squirrel conservation in 2009. Welsh Ministers agreed that urgent strategic action needed to be taken in order to conserve the population of reds in this area.
The red squirrels in mid Wales are one of only three significant populations in the whole of Wales. Genetic research seems to support the theory that the mid Wales red squirrel population is the remnant of a greater Welsh population, which, under pressure from the invasive grey, has contracted into the current range. We have at least four different haplotypes in mid Wales – a genetic variation passed through the maternal line – two of which have not been recorded in any other extant red squirrel population in Britain. Research carried out in the mid Wales focal site in 2013 by the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s ‘Mammals in a Sustainable Environment’ project analysed red squirrel hair samples for genetic variation. The research report concludes that it is likely that the red squirrels in mid Wales belong to a relatively narrow lineage that may include an ancestral Welsh population. (Vincent Wildlife Trust, 2013). Many would argue that it is important that such a genetically significant population is prevented from going the same way as most of the red squirrel populations in the rest of England and Wales.
So, why are red squirrels still hanging on in mid Wales when most of the reds in the rest of England and Wales have died out? The paradox is that the very reason that the non-native conifer plantations in mid Wales can support red squirrels is because they provide such a poor food source. The conifer plantations in mid Wales are dominated by Sitka spruce; this small seeded conifer, which cones irregularly, provides little food for squirrels. The larger and more robust grey squirrel finds it very difficult to meet dietary requirements from this type of conifer woodland and so red squirrels have a slight competitive advantage in large areas of coniferous woodland.
Red squirrels, if left to their own devices, would much prefer native broadleaved woodlands. Without pressure from grey squirrels, reds would be very content feeding on the nuts, berries, fungi, leaves and shoots that native Welsh woodland provides. However, as everyone knows, our broadleaved woodlands are dominated by grey squirrels. Grey squirrels are able to digest large seeds such as acorns, even before they are fully ripe; and therefore in broadleaved woodlands they can feed more efficiently than reds and out-compete them for resources.
Conifer plantations dominated by Sitka spruce will only support low densities of red squirrels but, with slight alterations in woodland management, can provide significant benefit for red squirrels whilst still disadvantaging greys. Tree species of particular value to red squirrels include lodgepole pine, Norway spruce and Scots pine. It is important to have a variety of these ‘key’ species to reduce the impact of poor cone years in any one of them. Having said that, a balance has to be struck; too many large-seeded conifers will attract grey squirrels into the focal site. Habitat continuity is also vital to red squirrels, and maintaining connectivity between seed-producing areas prevents red squirrels from being isolated from food sources and from each other.
One of the ways that the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Partnership is helping restore the population of red squirrels in mid Wales by working with Natural Resources Wales and private forest managers to encourage appropriate forest management. .Although it is accepted that the primary focus of forest managers in mid Wales will always be timber production, progressive forest managers, such as Partnership member Huw Denman, have demonstrated that red squirrel conservation and timber production need not be exclusive. Huw has been managing Bryn Arau Duon, a coniferous forest near Cwrt-y-Cadno, for red squirrels for over fifteen years. This has involved the retention of areas of lodgepole pine, as well as the maintenance of canopy cover through a continuous cover forestry management system. Although the trees are thinned, letting through light to enhance the diversity of the understory layer, the canopy cover is retained, allowing much-needed cover for red squirrels.
When Huw first stared managing Bryn Arau Duon, he never saw a red squirrel. However grey squirrels were present, so he began a programme of live trapping and dispatch to reduce the grey squirrel population. It took over three years of trapping, but eventually red squirrels started appearing in the traps. Grey squirrel control has continued and Huw now estimates the red squirrel population in the 687 hectares of Bryn Arau Duon to be between twenty to thirty individuals.
The fact is that at present, without grey squirrel control, appropriate management of red squirrel habitat is no more than a token gesture. We need both measures, hand-in-hand. The red squirrel project on Anglesey is an extremely successful conservation project and is direct evidence that removing grey squirrels leads to red squirrel population recovery. However, this ambition can only be achieved with the support of local people. Over 70 people living or managing land in the red squirrel focal site in mid Wales are already supporting the effort to save the red squirrel by taking part in a Trap Loan Scheme, managed by network of volunteers and overseen by the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Partnership. Over the past year they have collectively reduced the grey squirrel population by over 1,000, the momentum is growing, but the effort needs to be sustained.
Local people have also been reporting sightings of red squirrels in the focal site, giving the Partnership a better idea of where and when red squirrels are active. People love seeing red squirrels in Wales; this native mammal really makes a strong impact with its striking russet coat and graceful movements. People working and living in the mid Wales red squirrel focal site are most likely to spot red squirrels, usually as they a cross a road or open ground. Many recent sightings have come from the Llanfair Clydogau and Llanddewi Brefi areas.
A series of delightful photos from a trail camera located above Llanddewi Brefi and managed by a volunteer, show reds visiting a feeding station. These photos illustrate the playful nature of these iconic mammals. It would be a real shame if we allowed our red squirrels become yet another extinction story. Let’s hope that, as the efforts of the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Partnership become more effective, red squirrels will be seen in our broadleaved woodlands once again.
Report your sightings through the MWRSP website, www.midwalesredsquirrels.org or directly to Becky on 07972 201202 / *protected email*
Vincent Wildlife Trust (2013) Hair tube survey for the presence of red squirrels, (Sciurus vulgaris), in Cwm Berwyn, mid Wales. Unpublished Project Report
J Zool (1998) Comparative demography of red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) and grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in deciduous and conifer woodland. Research Gate.