Friday, 1 March 2013

Red army on the march

Fifteen years ago Anglesey’s red squirrels were close to extinct, about 40 adults, but today there are estimated to be more than 500. I don’t know whether it’s getting a bit crowded on the island but adventurous reds are storming the mainland, thought to be crossing the Menai Strait on the lower deck of the Britannia Bridge.

Craig Shuttleworth talking to Radio Wales Country Focus
Photo  BASC 
I joined a group of volunteers in the National Trust woodlands of the Vaenol, overlooking Plas Newydd, for a briefing session with Dr Craig Shuttleworth of the Red Squirrel Trust Wales. My fellow volunteers were mainly members of BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation) and that gives a clue to the success of the reds. Part of the BASC Green Shoots initiative.   

Reds and greys can’t coexist – the larger greys from America out-compete the reds for resources. They also carry a disease which is lethal to the reds. For the successful restoration of the Anglesey population a pre-requisite has been the systematic killing of the greys. A population of over 3,000 is now thought to be less than 30. Not everyone approves! A survey indicated 65% approval for culling, 20% no opinion and 15% against.

Culling is by shooting or by trapping and Craig demonstrated best practice with a trap. On the day nine traps were inspected, two contained reds, which were released and scampered free into the trees, and two which contained greys. All traps had been covered with a sheet of black plastic, to keep the animals dry and warm, and covered with leaves for camouflage. To deal with the greys a hessian sack was placed over the entrance to the trap and when the door was opened, the squirrel ran to the far corner of the sack where it was held tight and swiftly despatched with a cudgel to the head. Brutal but quick. 

Red squirrel ready for release
Photo BASC
It’s difficult to know how many reds are present in this bit of woodland but maybe about 20? There are other pockets of reds, including some pioneers in the woods near  Bethesda, right on the edge of Snowdonia National Park. Esmé Kirby, founder of the Snowdonia Society, and who galvanised people into action for the red squirrels, would be very pleased with this progress. The intention is to cull around the Menai Strait and inland to prevent  greys returning to the island and encourage their spread up the Ogwen valley. When will they be in my garden in Ffestiniog? 

Many thanks to the BASC for organising this event. Walking back to the cars I was busy chatting and missed the red that ran across our path.

If you want to know more about the red squirrel project there is a very informative website. You can also listen to Craig talking on the Country Focus programme on Sunday 3rd March. 

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