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Spring 2021

Welcome to our 2021 spring newsletter. I’m sure we are all pleased to see/feel some warmer weather and nature coming to life during this time of the year. Red squirrels are also out and about foraging for food and nursing their young in their dreys; some may already be weaned and out and about too. It is a busy time for everyone involved in red squirrel conservation, as greys are about as well, so there is no rest from our efforts. This issue will reflect on the progress made during 2020, which was an extremely busy year as far as greys are concerned, and we also look at other points of interest. Be sure not to miss the last section, which provides links to some of these.

Heinz Traut
RSNE Project Manager

2020 results

After collating and preparing around 19,000 records, thanks to the Northern Red Squirrels community volunteer groups’ (and thanks Mike for preparing the data!), we put together a summary of the year’s efforts/results. Even though we all experienced a year of uncertainty, there was little pause for managing grey squirrel populations. Greys certainly had a boom year in 2020; most probably due to a mild winter and abundant natural food supplies during the autumn of 2019.

Wherever there was a record representing a camera, feeder, trap, visual survey etc. - with the purpose to conserve red squirrels (see summary map top left) – we presumed a sphere/radius of influence at that location of around 500m. The resulting cumulative effort adds up to about 234,000 hectares, which is a staggering area and represents an immense effort. Two thirds (68%) of the area influenced for reds were within Cumbria and one third (32%) in Northumberland. Within each area, RSNE contributed 13% in Cumbria and 27% in Northumberland (or 16% of the combined area) - principally around strongholds and filling in some gaps (see link below for maps illustrating areas). Grey squirrel numbers closely mirror these proportions. Of the total grey squirrels managed, an amazing 86% was due to local volunteer group effort. It is worth a pause to consider this tremendous volunteer community contribution: had it not been for this effort, we would be unlikely to have any red squirrels left in the North of England! Maps for the red distribution/detection during 2020 can be seen here, along with the effort maps and grey management results for 2020.

2021 Spring Monitoring Programme

Surveys are forging ahead full steam and we are already 2/3's into the 12 week survey window stretching from March to May. Credit goes to all the local NRS volunteer groups who have taken on the baton to deliver this important programme, and in many cases, employ their own equipment such as cameras and feeders.

The spring monitoring programme is the only systematic long-term evidence-base that substantiates our collective work. Without that, we have no scientific basis for knowing/demonstrating that we are making a difference. The coordination of the programme has also been helped by an old friend of the project, Simon O’Hare, who through a short contract is liaising with groups in Cumbria and getting kit out where necessary. Mike Denbury has also done a great job coordinating surveys in Northumberland; it being his first ‘taste’ of coordinating such a large-scale monitoring programme. Our thanks go out to all the volunteers who are making the programme possible. Once all the results are in via the new Google forms, we’ll be analysing the findings and writing up the report. It will be interesting to see how the occupancy percentages have changed since 2019.


A number of squirrelpox cases were recently (March) reported from the southeast coast of Northumberland (Cramlington & District Red Squirrel Group area), but also a number of adenovirus (AV) cases were confirmed by the Animal & Plant Health Agency. AV can be common in rodents, including mice, and droppings on the forest floor near feeders can pose a risk to the health of red squirrels, as hopping over it is unavoidable and the virus can then be transferred from their paws to their mouths as they feed. It is therefore recommended to keep on top of your feeding stations’ hygiene (ideally clean and disinfect busy feeders weekly – Virkon S disinfectant is recommended – and sweep up wasted feed if possible). As well as having a regular feeder cleaning and disinfecting regime, where feeding stations are in the woods, it would be advisable to occasionally move the feeder to a different tree to give the previous location a ‘rest’ to minimize the accumulation of discarded shells and food remains beneath feeders.

For reference see: Adenovirus: an emerging factor in red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris conservation (link).

Grey Squirrel Management Training

British Red Squirrel is leading a partnership in the development of a grey squirrel management training course for use throughout the British Isles. Contributors include Red Squirrel South West, Red Squirrel Survival Trust, UK Squirrel Accord, RSNE, Scotland, N Ireland, Wales, BASC, NRS, Squirrel Groups, individuals, National Forest and Forestry Commission/England, with Accreditation from Lantra. A questionnaire shared with these and other experienced stakeholders has helped to scope out the content of the course, which has been immensely helpful. Further consultation will follow. The course will be one day of theory and practical training, encompassing all aspects of grey squirrel management, both trapping and shooting (only providing competency for trapping at this stage). It's flexible enough to be taught in red squirrel and in grey-only areas, in all countries of the UK. It is hoped to develop a second day for shooting competency, with a proficiency test, once this course is up and running – this will make training more accessible to operators further away from Northern England, where there is access to a Lantra air-rifle grey control course.

The new course will be for people involved in grey squirrel management, beginners or experienced, whether for red squirrel conservation or for grey management to prevent further economic and environmental damage caused by this non-native invasive species (see link at the end about tree damage). It is anticipated that the certification will be an aid to gaining access permission in many situations where access would not otherwise be allowed. It is hoped to launch the course late summer 2021.

Encouraging signs at Harwood Forest

In collaboration with Forestry England and thanks to great volunteer effort, monitoring was undertaken in Harwood Forest to determine if there had been any change to the number and distribution of red squirrels.

The 2019 study identified red squirrels at 7 of the 11 monitoring locations and that grey squirrels were present in an area near Harwood Village. An initial reconnaissance visit was made to establish if there would be any constraints due to forestry operations and to also check for squirrel feeding signs. Stripped Sitka spruce, Scots pine and some Norway spruce cones where initially found at 12 locations which were well spread through the forest. This was an early stage but the subjective impression was that the feeding evidence seemed significantly more wide spread than in 2019. In September, motion activated cameras were placed at 12 locations throughout the forest as close as possible to the ones used in 2019. Each camera was facing a squirrel feeder baited with a mix of whole maize, sunflower seeds and peanuts. Despite a slight delay due to the COVID-19 restrictions and it not being possible to make an interim visit to refill the feeders and change camera batteries, the study lasted a total of 83 days.

Number of observations of Red Squirrels at each camera station in 2020 and 2019 and the maximum number seen on a single camera image.

Location Red Squirrel Observations 2020 Max Count 2020 Red Squirrel Observations 2019 Max Count 2019
1 249 3 6 2
2 0 0 5 1
3 2 1 0 0
4 0 0 4 1
5 505 2 18 1
6 709 2 0 0
7 273 3 1 1
8 0 0 0 0
9 0 0 10 1
10 6 1 3 1
11 1 1 0 0
12 551 2 - -
  Total 2,296   Total 47  

The total number of red squirrel observations in 2020 was 2,296, in contrast to 47 in 2019 and no grey squirrels were detected.

Map of camera locations and where squirrels were detected (2021 monitoring results map)

Despite the differences in timing and duration between the camera-trapping in 2020 versus 2019, the differences in squirrel results is stark. The obvious explanation for the lack of grey squirrels in 2020 is control measures, not least by RSNE Ranger Elliot Lea and renewed effort by neighboring landowners such as the National Trust at Wallingtion.

While the enormous difference between the numbers of red squirrel observations at cameras near the village versus those in the deep forest might be explained by supplementary feeding causing numbers to be greater, behavior can also be a contributing factor. The squirrels near the village are likely to be habituated to artificial feeders while ‘deep forest’ red squirrels are shy of the hoppers resulting in less recorded observations. It is well known that the number of squirrels in a conifer forest fluctuate in line with cone production however at least part

of the rise in red squirrel observations, the maximum count, and the widespread occurrence of feeding signs is most likely because of an increase in numbers. These have been encouraging results and would indicate that through continued effort Harwood Forest remains a stronghold of the red squirrel in north-east England.

(Extracts for the report produced by RSNE volunteer: Roland Ascroft).

Countryside Stewardship?

A Defra funded project, managed by the Forestry Commission on behalf of Natural England, will identify what impact Countryside Stewardship’s (CS) Woodland Improvement grant (WD2) has on the biodiversity priorities of the scheme. That is, to evaluate the response of woodland species to large-scale habitat management implemented through CS WD2. Woodland Improvement is the fifth most frequently implemented option under CS. 340 scheme owners are being contacted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), who have been awarded the research contract, to seek permission to carry out surveys during March 2021 to July 2021. RSNE has been consulted to inform the survey methodology pertaining to squirrels and to support delivery of a number of surveys. This is not an inspection or audit, it is simply gathering anonymised data to analyse and produce findings which will inform woodland biodiversity objectives and approaches. This project will identify what impact WD2 has on the biodiversity priorities of the scheme for example, SSSI and Priority Woodland Habitat condition, PAWS restoration woodland bird and red squirrel conservation.


  • RSNE is delighted to announce it has received £1,100 from the Lake District Foundation in support of our two ranger’s work in the Lakes.
  • Environmental Records Information Centre North East has awarded RSNE £700 through its small grants programme to help us with the first step towards building a data collation and analysis tool, using off-the-shelf functionality available through ESRI’s ArcGIS Online platform and Survey 123 mobile data collection tool. The powerful mapping and analytics software from ArcGIS will help us progress towards streamlining and simplifying data collation/analysis, minimise errors, improve location accuracy, increase detection rates and make ‘live’ data available to stakeholders via intuitive dashboards containing graphs, tables and maps.

  • With regards to the Return of the Reds National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) bid, we are restarting the application process with partners, following 2020’s closure of Lottery applications, and are preparing to submit an updated Expression of Interest (EOI). This will take into consideration the new social priorities/outcomes required following the national crisis of 2020. The EOI, once submitted to NLHF, will determine if we can proceed with an application. Partners include: Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Northumberland WT, Lancashire WT, Scottish WT and the APHA (Animal & Plant health Agency – i.e. for grey squirrel fertility control).

TED the red by Rosie Mould from the Lower Coquetdale RS group

 oung “Ted” was observed one evening going into a garden feeder, having taken a few leaves in with him and not reappearing.

After work, and in the pitch black, I went up to investigate and found a pathetic little cold creature curled up ready to die. He had obvious lice and fleas and hair loss and scabbing on nose and one ear and had completely lost one ear tuft. Also his toes were bleeding and damaged. Assuming the worst, squirrelpox, I injected him with ivermectin for his parasites, gave him some fluids under the skin and put him in a trap overnight with some food, water and nest material and he spent the night on top of our toasty warm biomass boiler. The next morning, much to my surprise, he was still alive.

I delivered him quickly to Robson and Prescott, vets in Morpeth where I happened to be working. The practice does a lot of exotics and wildlife work and has a ward facility where there is a secure, quiet and warm environment, and staff who are used to and qualified in handling wildlife; a big bonus. Over the next two weeks they gave him fluids, fed him until he started to eat on his own, and weighed him daily. After four days, he started to eat sunflower seeds as well as the emeraid porridge he was being offered. He was treated with antibiotics and pain relief by injection and helpfully shed his extra 'friends' very quickly. His lesions healed gradually leaving him with a patchwork quilt of hair loss on back, tail and face.

I took a variety of advice from experts, and received an equal variety of opinions. In the end, I decided to go with my gut feeling, that Ted's problems were mainly derived from primary heavy louse infestation causing severe itching, profound anaemia and hair and skin loss, as Sue had been watching him get slower for about three weeks at her feeders. This was partly because we had earlier lost a little female red, found dead in her feeder in January, also with a heavy parasite infestation, very thin and looking very anaemic.

Various suggestions of adenovirus, squirrelpox and leprosy were all possible, I sent hair samples off to APHA and they came back SQPV and adenovirus negative. Leprosy is impossible to diagnose without a biopsy and I was very reluctant to stress him further when he was just starting to get his independence.

After a couple of weeks, he was getting even more feisty and it was time to release him into a soft release pen. The pen had been carefully constructed over many hours in a garden in a coniferous red area, from which we have removed 150 greys over the past 12 months (and ongoing), mainly because we had that option, even if it was away from where he originated (four miles).

I camera monitored his movements in and out of the insulated nest box which carpenter Mike had constructed for him and which he took to instantly.

For the first few days he seemed to have lost his diurnal rhythm , and slept in latein a very non squirrel like way. However, after a week or so he was up at 5am, out for a pee and observing the world before his breakfast. As soon as I had his results back, after three weeks in his pen, we lifted the mesh and he had outside access. He took another 48 hours before he left the hotel completely and our volunteers have sited his nest box up a tree in case anyone fancies using it. I continue to monitor movement in and out but no sightings as yet. There is some debate as to whether he will return to his original woods, as he is very recognisable, minus one ear tuft and he has a blonde tail and looks pretty scruffy so we are hoping he will appear on one of our cameras at some point. I am assuming that his heavy parasite burden was caused by pressure, most probably from greys nearby. He was last year’s kit, as was the little female who died. The others in the area look ok, but we are monitoring them carefully. It’s not so easy to treat them without being able to get hold of the little critters! Hopefully a happy ending to a long and steep learning curve. I’m most grateful to the staff at R and P, staff at the APHA and all sources of information, and most especially to our fantastic LC-reds volunteers. Also to Sue and Arthur, whose garden he has occupied for the last few weeks, who are a fabulous support and never ending source of information.

PS. Ted the red spotted at a feeder (on camera) in the 15th April 1km from where his release pen was but still on the edge of Swarland Woods.

By Rosie Mould www.lcreds.org.uk.

Useful links

Fertility control: If you missed the recent online update with the excellent Animal and Plant Health Agency team carrying out the research, you can watch and share the recording via the UK Squirrel Accord’s YouTube channel. Here is also a link to the updated research FAQs document in the resources library section of the UKSA website.

Gene editing: Here’s a link to the European Squirrel Initiative’s press release.

Squirrelpox vaccine: The Wildlife Ark Trust is hoping to progress this research - link.

Animal Health & Veterinary Laboratories Agency: RSNE advice note about post mortems - link.

Pine martens (Cumbria): A short update video on the University of Cumbria University’s feasibility study.

Bark stripping damage to trees - issues and solutions: An informative video by the UK Squirrel Accord and partners (longer webinar version here).

RSNE blog for UKSA: On ‘Managing invasive non-native grey squirrels to safeguard our native red squirrels and woodland biodiversity’ (link).

Next RSNE event: Monday 17 May 2021 (18:30) online talk virtually in Cumbria (link to book a place).

Forest Operations and Red Squirrel Conservation: A recent study in Scotland link.

Remoti Systems: www.remotisystems.com - these are battery operated devices that notify the user when a trap door has closed, thus helpful for animal welfare by reducing the time to respond be the operator. Cost is about £45/year for one device. It has proven to work well in Kielder where mobile signal is low. The website has helpful advice pertaining to the legal side of using these devices.

Cameras: We have found resent tests with a £30 TOGUARD wildlife camera off e-bay very satisfactory and are worth a try.

Tags for cameras & traps: Some landowners are in favour of conservation equipment to be tagged to identify the owner organisation, but also to reassure the public stumbling across equipment, that it is there for a permitted activity. We have found www.seton.co.uk competitive in pricing.

Final word from the RSNE Project Management Team

We pass on our collective thanks to the efforts that are being made, and ultimately helping to sustain red squirrels in what is still a challenging environment for us all. Without the collective effort of all involved, and especially volunteers and groups, red squirrel conservation would be under significant threat. One of the real strengths of the partnership is the ability to share data and collective effort to show the bigger picture. Thank you to all.
(PMG: Forestry Commission, Red Squirrel Survival Trust, Natural England, Northumberland Wildlife Trusts and UK Squirrel Accord)

Heinz Traut
RSNE Project Manager