The Isle of Wight?s red squirrels are at risk of being wiped out, as locals continue to report incidents of the animals being attacked and killed by birds of prey.
Conservationists have long known that a virus carried by introduced American greys often proves fatal to reds, but now the estimated 3,500 reds that live in broadleaved woodland on the island find themselves under attack from birds of prey, as well.
?About three days ago, I had another attack, right on my patio. I couldn?t believe it,? Binstead resident Sheila Hiscock told Shooting Times.
?These are buzzards, there is no mistaking them. I rushed out into the garden and the bird was attacking a squirrel. I don?t know if the bird got the kill or not, as it flew off down into the valley, but it probably did get it because I never saw the squirrel again.?
The red squirrel population in the British Isles has declined dramatically recently, with fewer than 140,000 individuals remaining.
Around 85% are thought to live in Scotland, but the Isle of Wight is an important stronghold, with the Solent providing a barrier to bigger and bolder greys.
Reds are also under threat from cats and dogs, road traffic and poor habitat management.
?The first time I witnessed this kind of thing was two years ago,? said Sheila Hiscock.
?I saw a buzzard come into the garden, so I set my dog after it, but the buzzard waited before coming back for seconds. It disembowelled a squirrel right in front of me. I was standing there screaming and jumping up and down, but the birds are so determined, or so very hungry, that they?ll carry on in front of you. When a squirrel is killed by a buzzard it screams worse than a rabbit. It is quite distressing.?
Local conservation group the Wight Squirrel Project continues to say that the lack of photographic evidence to back up accounts such as Sheila Hiscock?s means that these must remain unconfirmed reports, but the group?s project manager, Helen Butler, told Shooting Times that she is taking the reports seriously.
?I haven?t actually seen it myself, or got any footage of it ? all I get is people telling me things,? she said, ?but reports like Sheila?s certainly seem to have increased. I have had many other reports from reliable people. In recent woodland surveys, we?ve noticed more buzzards and more buzzards? nests. I suppose they?ve got to get cuter with the food they take and look for other options.?
Sheila is not at all optimistic about the red squirrel?s future.
?The number of squirrels has been so depleted, goodness knows what else is going on round here,? she said.
?These buzzards go around in family groups, particularly if the air is still, flying quite high, and they know precisely where all the squirrels are. The squirrels do not stand a chance. I think three years down the line I?m not going to see red squirrels at all. The decline will be that dramatic. It is definitely down to birds of prey. About 10 years ago, the squirrels suffered from a virus, but they seemed to have recovered. There is no way they can keep up that recovery with the number of kills going on round here.?
John Cleaver, from Newnham Farm, near Ryde, agreed. ?We used to have a lot of red squirrels,? he said.
?On a day such as today, when the sun is shining, we would probably have 10 in the garden but we now only have one, if any. About three years ago, my wife was watching a squirrel on the lawn and a large buzzard swooped down and snatched it. That was that one finished with.?
?Buzzards may eat worms but they but they will take whatever is going. I?ve seen them take young rabbits from right in front of me. We used to have a healthy population of hares on the farm and no buzzards, but now we have got lots of buzzards and no hares. I?m pretty certain that the two things are linked.?