Ravenstonedale Kirkby Stephen Cumbria

Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale

Contributor: Frank Chalmers

Red squirrels are a common site in Ravenstonedale and visitors have a very good chance of seeing one.

At the time of writing (2006), red squirrels are being divided into two camps, nationally – those in the “reserves” and those in “Open Country”. Ravenstonedale is in the unprotected “Open Country”. The reserves are to be large conifer forests, such as Whinfell, where the research suggests the ever diminishing population can be defended – we will have to fend for ourselves! And we will.

Pictures © Frank Chalmers (click on picture to enlarge)

Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale
Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale
Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale
Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale

We have had an increasing interest in the village about the fate of our Reds and building on the excellent work being done by Gary Kirby, Publican of the Kings Head more villagers have become involved in the “feed and breed” programme. An estimated 15 or more feeding stations have been set up by committed squirrel devotees and there was a dramatic increase in the squirrels range during 2005. They can now be seen on a regular basis throughout the village from Cold beck in the North West to the Chantry in the South.

Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale
Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale
Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale
Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale
Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale
Red Squirrels in Ravenstonedale

The aim of breed and feed is simple – increase the available proper food (mainly Hazel nuts) and thereby support a larger breeding population, year on year. If we were not to do this our population could be more easily wiped out by Parapox virus, whereas if we have a larger increasingly diverse population, they may survive either road kills or parapox. Parapox virus is carried by Grey Squirrels (sciurus carolinensis) which if passed on to Red squirrels kills the red and causes severe lesions and ulceration similar to Myxomatosis in rabbits. Currently there are only experimental drugs that occasionally prevent death of an infected Red squirrel – otherwise parapox kills virtually 100% on infection.

We are trying to develop an effective Grey Alert and cull system, because the Greys are progressively invading the surrounding woodlands. This follows the national pattern which has shown that since release, the Greys have displaced and eradicated virtually all Red squirrels in the South, Midlands and North England. There are now only isolated small reserves of Red Squirrels.

“In Scotland, the grey squirrel was introduced in three places: Argyll (1892), Fife (1919) and Edinburgh (around 1919). It has since spread south into the Borders and north into Perthshire. Grey squirrels are now widespread in central and southern Scotland with isolated pockets in Aberdeen and Deeside. Their spread is likely to continue.”  ©2004 Scottish Natural Heritage.

In June 2006, two grey squirrels were spotted, near the King’s Head (see web site link on this web site). Their tails were added to the 2 or 3 others hanging next to the bar (from last years cull). Thanks are due to the vigilance of the Landlord – Gary Kirby and to the shooters who killed the greys.

The irresistible invasion of Greys moves ever Northwards and has reached Southern Scotland where it will meet up with the previously released Grey population resident in North West Scotland. Without some form of Biological control (developed for Rabbits that interferes with reproduction) or cheap, easy to use anti viral drugs, we are likely to have diminishing small populations of Red Squirrels kept and defended by local groups, where the type of ground cover and tree types favour Reds, not Greys.

The Conifer and bare fells type of landscape could support the selective dietary needs of the Reds – whereas the greys forage successfully in Broadleaved and more lush landscapes. Greys are larger and eat more types of food, gaining energy from materials to store fat for hibernation. The Reds eat fewer materials but can convert energy from some types of materials more effectively (i.e. Pine cone seeds) than the Greys. Hence the thinking behind Conifer Forest Red Squirrel reserves.

It seems that each household “owns” their visiting squirrel in Ravenstonedale and often ascribes names to them such as “Cyril”. They delight the eye with their delicate shape and their cheerful bright colour; it is little wonder that they are so popular. Ravenstonedale’s squirrels seem to be from the original British stock and often sport a blond tail. We are not sure what our current total occupancy is, nor quite where they live and it is therefore difficult to give an accurate picture or audit. Some guesses estimate 12 squirrels (2005) and at the end of 2005 at the Dickie Green end we estimated an increase of at least two “kittens” or young squirrels. The real increase is likely to be greater over the whole village and could be as great as 6 kittens in the 2005 breeding year.

To try to ensure the progressive increase, we need to look at rope bridges – to reduce road kills and man made drays to give shelter in trees that may not normally be used by squirrels. Starter kits or feeders and hazel nuts are available or can be quickly obtained (at cost) by contacting Frank Chalmers. I have been grateful to all who have contacted me about setting up squirrel friendly habitat, behavioural questions, worries and concerns etc.

There are several useful internet sites to visit. Simply search 'red quirrels'. Some of these will be invaluable if you want to become a “red squirrel” bore or win a pub quiz about red squirrels: