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Squirrels: Better red than dead

The first red squirrel I ever saw was high up in an oak tree near Barton Mills in the Breckland in East Anglia. I was in my early teens and in those days I earned pocket money by beating for two uncles, who were part of a syndicate shoot on Forestry Commission land in Thetford Forest.

We had just paused in a small clearing to consider the “lunch break” – in those days we were not so posh and it was a “dinner break”. Suddenly, one of the Guns swung his 12-bore upwards and fired, and then a red squirrel plummeted to the ground. The other Guns muttered at him. I was horrified – what a beautiful animal and what a senseless death. “I thought it was a grey,” he spluttered. What nonsense; he clearly had an itchy trigger finger.

I have seen many red squirrels since then, of course, most of them enjoying better luck than that little squirrel. The last truly wild red squirrels I saw were in some oak trees in Norfolk. It was 1976, the summer of the “drought year”. They were doing what squirrels do, high up in the trees – which is a lazy way of saying I have no idea what they were doing, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

But red squirrels, in general, didn’t enjoy themselves for very much longer, thanks to the advance of the grey squirrel. The greys’ aggression, plus the pox they carried which was fatal to reds, soon wiped out the red squirrel from East Anglia.

Rendezvous with reds

Later, I saw some more unlucky reds in Thetford Forest when doing a country series for Anglia Television in 1997. We filmed the arrival of a batch of red squirrels from Northern England for a reintroduction programme carried out by scientists. To me, the project seemed a complete shambles and the squirrels all died out, almost certainly because of the presence of greys. Astonishingly, it is said that some Forestry Commission “experts” claimed that the reds would be okay because grey squirrels did not invade conifer woodland. How wrong they were. The experience did nothing to enhance my view of scientists.

When writing my book The Hunting Gene, I saw red squirrels again, this time in Cumbria. I also met those incredible volunteers in the Lake District fighting to preserve their beloved reds against the greys. They were ordinary people doing in their spare time what the professionals should have been undertaking. Natural England and the RSPB in particular ought to be ashamed of themselves, and it took the National Trust some time before it began to get its act together.

In 2005, things took a turn for the better when Center Parcs, near Penrith, launched its own red squirrel reserve with Jerry Moss as its ranger. It was at about this time that I started to get to know David Stapleford, a marvellous pioneer of captive breeding near Fakenham. It was with his help that the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT) started its own captive breeding programme at its Mayfields smallholding in 2012.

Oh, and I will have a little boast here. In 2011, my wife Lulu and I had the good fortune to be invited to visit the Birkhall estate in Aberdeenshire, not only to meet HRH The Prince of Wales, but also to meet some of the wild squirrels that invite themselves into his house. What a fantastic experience.

Tresco project

My obsession with red squirrels has now taken me to Tresco – the second-biggest island of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall – where captive-bred red squirrels have been released. The project started a few years ago when Humfrey Wakefield, a wonderful, gentle, amusing potter, suggested that red squirrels be introduced to Tresco.

Humfrey died in 2010, but his dream was kept alive through collaboration between the CRT, the British Wildlife Centre, Tresco Island and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) at Culdrose. The British Wildlife Centre could provide captive-bred squirrels, Tresco Island could provide the site and the squirrel hospitality, the RNAS could drop the squirrels off while on a normal training fl ight, and the CRT could help co-ordinate the whole thing – job done. Well, not exactly.

Mid-September was chosen, that time of “mists and mellow fruitfulness”. It was a time when my old father always said that good, calm weather could be expected – just right to get the harvest finished.

So 20 squirrels were each given a travelling box at the British Wildlife Centre, under the watchful eye of the owner/founder David Mills. Road transport was ready to take the squirrels from Surrey to Cornwall. A holding-cum-release pen was ready on Tresco, and Lulu and I were on the edge of Bodmin Moor ready to catch a Skybus Twin Otter aeroplane from Newquay to the island of St Mary’s.

It was then that my father’s theory developed a flaw. Well, not just one flaw, but several. Gale-force winds blew in, rain sheeted down and visibility began to close in. With amazing luck the Twin Otter headed in to the wind and up – while other flights were being cancelled at Newquay Airport. Then it was by jetboat across a bumpy sea from St Mary’s to Tresco. I then received a phone call from Mike Nelhams, the curator of Tresco Abbey Gardens. His right-hand-man, David Hamilton, was waiting with the squirrels at Culdrose, but unfortunately the Sea King helicopter had been grounded because of the weather. What a nightmare.

Alien species

Conservation is a strange thing. Though I had commissioned a report by Britain’s leading red squirrel expert, Dr Craig Shuttleworth, on the feasibility of red squirrels going to Tresco, there were, and are, self-appointed red squirrel “experts” who apparently know even more than Craig. They say that the red squirrel is an alien to Tresco, so should not be taken there. The “experts” seem to believe that when the Scilly Isles were still part of mainland Britain all red squirrels stopped at Land’s End. But wait a minute, isn’t Tresco home to a fantastic collection of exotic plants from Africa, South America, Australasia and so on? And haven’t many of the plants naturalised? So it’s an alien species being released into alien species – just what are these “conservationists” going on about?

As far as I am concerned, having red squirrels on Tresco raises the profile of the squirrel; they attract tourists, and hopefully will create a stable population, safe from greys. There is another point that has to be made, too. If the introduction of red squirrels goes wrong, they can simply be trapped and taken away because they are on an island. Did anybody from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Natural England, the RSPB and so on have a similar fallback position for the release of pine martens, sea eagles and red kites? And I must congratulate SNH and the RSPB for keeping quiet for so long about the damage being done to the capercaillie by pine martens.

Emotional release

It was tense. The weather calmed and a helicopter appeared, with Mike waving from the open door. With flying gear on, he had morphed into his literary hero, James Bond. After a wait of 42 hours instead of 24, would the squirrels be alive? I took a box from Lieutenant Phil Ross and felt a scurry inside. The squirrel was okay – what a relief and what an emotional surge.

After car and helicopter rides, the squirrels were taken by tractor and trailer to their enclosure. More relief: 18 of the 20 squirrels had survived. Two days later, the door of the enclosure was opened and slowly but surely the squirrels found their freedom – a comfortable freedom with squirrel boxes and feeding stations placed nearby. What a sight these captive-bred squirrels provided as they climbed in the trees and explored their surroundings. Visitors in the Abbey Gardens stopped mid-stride – several were watching their first-ever red squirrels. The profile of the animals had already been raised.

Reports from Tresco suggest that the squirrels are doing well – fingers crossed until the spring. But what about releasing red squirrels on other islands, where they could be caught up if things went wrong? How about Mull and the Isle of Man? The answer will almost certainly be “no”. It is my experience that if the conservation fundamentalists don’t think of a good idea first, then they will oppose it.