A project run by the Mid Wales Red Squirrel partnership (MWRSP) is working to save the remaining population of red squirrels in mid Wales; one of only three significant populations of red squirrels in the whole of Wales.
The red squirrel has been in decline in Wales since the introduction of the grey squirrel in the late 1800s. Until the 1950s, the red squirrel was a common sight in mid Wales and an integral part of the Welsh landscape. In 1958, a schoolteacher from Rhandirmwyn stated that a child had come into school with a report of a grey squirrel, one of the first in the area! From then onwards it was downhill for the red squirrel, as the larger and more robust grey squirrel quickly moved into local woodlands, eating much of the available food and spreading parapoxvirus, which the greys are immune to, but which usually proves fatal to red squirrels. 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.
The number of red squirrels that still remain in mid Wales is difficult to estimate; they are elusive and numbers can fluctuate quite dramatically from year to year. However, local ecologists estimate that between 100 and 500 red squirrels are hanging on in the area surrounding Llyn Brianne reservoir which encompasses parts of Powys, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. The large conifer plantations that are strewn across the hills of mid Wales are very poor habitat for any squirrel. Ironically, it is this very fact that has made the Twyi Forest and surrounding plantations a sanctuary for the red squirrel. The lack of available food for squirrels in conifer plantations means that these woodlands offer the greatest potential for supporting red squirrels in the presence of grey squirrel expansion, as small-seeded conifers are less favoured by grey squirrels.
However, even-aged plantations dominated by Sitka spruce only support low densities of red squirrels and slight alterations in woodland management in these areas can significantly improve the habitat for red squirrels, while still disadvantaging the greys. A mixture of tree species is important to reduce the impact of poor cone years in one particular species; species of value to red squirrels include Norway spruce and lodgepole pine. Red squirrels like a dense canopy; they are arboreal creatures and prefer not to pass over open land. To retain connectivity, areas need to be designated for long-term retention, preferably at the edges of plantations where coning is heavier. Retaining links between seed-producing areas will help to prevent the isolation of red squirrels from each other, from food sources and will help to reduce losses from predation. In forests with evidence of red squirrel habitation, clear-felling should be avoided, as should the felling of any trees between February and July to avoid disturbance during the red squirrel breeding season.
The Mid Wales Red Squirrel Partnership (MWRSP) is working with forest managers in the mid Wales red squirrel focal area to try to ensure that the conifer woodlands, that are so vital to the survival of the red squirrel in mid Wales, are managed not only for timber, but also with red squirrels in mind. The MWRSP is also working with local communities to undertake grey squirrel control in the towns and villages surrounding the focal area, to reduce the number of grey squirrels that encroach into red squirrel territory. Becky Hulme, Red Squirrel Officer for the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, remarked: “There are many people in the local communities of the mid Wales red squirrel focal area who are keen to see the red squirrel thrive once again in mid Wales. If we all work together, we are hopeful that the red squirrel will once more become a common sight in our woodlands and gardens.”
The MWRSP is in the process of constructing a new website for the project. The Biodiversity Information Service (BIS) is doing its bit for red squirrel conservation by working with the MWRSP to produce maps of red squirrel sightings that have been reported to Local Record Centres. Becky commented: “We are delighted to be working with BIS; they have been really helpful in supplying information on red squirrel sightings for the new website. The new on-line facility will mean that website users will be able to access maps of previous sightings, helping them to build a picture of red squirrel presence over time in their local area. We will also be providing an easy to use web-based reporting facility for people to record their sightings of red squirrels; this will help to build a picture of red squirrel activity in the focal area, which will inform project activity. Many people still aren’t aware of the existence of the red squirrel in mid Wales. The new website will encourage greater awareness of the plight of the red squirrel in mid Wales; it is hoped that this will inspire even more people to get involved with red squirrel conservation.”
For more information go to: www.midwalesredsquirrels.org or email Becky on