Help from High Places

Red Squirrel by Mike Snelle

Red Squirrel by Mike Snelle

It’s not a widely-known fact, but one of Wales’ only remaining populations of red squirrels is situated in mid-Wales, within and around the Tywi Forest area, straddling Brecknock, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion.  However, this remnant population of red squirrels, a once common and widespread native UK species, is under threat.  Loss of suitable habitat is one of the problems that red squirrels have to deal with, but their greatest threat comes from the much larger grey squirrel.

The grey squirrel was introduced to the UK in the 1870s from the USA. Since the introduction of a handful of animals, grey squirrel numbers have climbed to almost 3 million and they outnumber reds by 25-1.  In broadleaved woodland in particular, grey squirrels out-compete reds for resources, leaving red squirrels without enough to eat and vulnerable to local extinction. Grey squirrels also carry the squirrel poxvirus which is harmless to greys but is fatal to red squirrels.

In the heart of the Tywi Forest Red Squirrel Focal Site, large areas of coniferous woodland give reds a slight competitive advantage over their larger cousins, and this has allowed red squirrels to cling on in mid Wales.  Reds can eat the small seeds of coniferous trees; small seeded conifers are less favoured by grey squirrels as they do not provide them with enough nutrition. Despite the advance of the grey squirrel, the red squirrels have hung on in the Tywi Forest area – and if they are going to survive into the future, they need our support!

WTSWW have been running a Trap Loan Scheme for local landowners for the last five years which has helped to reduce the grey squirrel population in mid Wales.  Becky Hulme, Red Squirrel Officer for the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW) explained, “Research has shown that focused grey squirrel control is key to conserving our red squirrels.  Over the last couple of years we have also been working with volunteers to track red squirrels to find out more about habitat use.  There is currently scant information about how red squirrels survive in the forests of mid Wales.  The more we can find out about how red squirrels use the forest habitat, the better we can inform habitat improvements”.  Examples might be red squirrel dependence on certain tree species as food sources.  “If we know that red squirrels are eating seeds from particular types of tree, we can work with Forest Managers to plant more of these trees, making food sources more available for our reds.”

The funding that has supported the WTSWW Red Squirrel Project to undertake this valuable conservation work is coming to an end.   But all is not lost.  Wildlife enthusiast and conservationist Michael Cunningham is not prepared to sit back and watch as pressure on the vulnerable red squirrel intensifies. Instead, he aims to raise funds for the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales to support the vital work of the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Project in order to protect these magnificent native creatures.

Michael’s love of nature started as a young boy growing up in the Wye Valley. Inspired by the beauty surrounding him, he went on to study Conservation at university. Since graduating he has been actively seeking to make a difference to our wildlife and wild places. Mike’s enthusiasm and commitment is undeniable, given the task he has set himself in aid of red squirrels.

In July Michael will soar over the Swansea coastline before returning to land in aid of the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Project. Hurling through the air towards the ground doesn’t appeal to many, however Michael; a first time skydiver is willing to take the leap.

Michael hopes to raise £5,000 to help fund the purchase of survey equipment, this includes trail cameras that can detect red squirrels deep in the woods and pit-tags to enable the project team to identify individual squirrels. Mike’s sponsorship will also fund training of enthusiastic survey volunteers. We currently have very little information about how red squirrels survive in the forests of Mid Wales. The more we can find out about how red squirrels use the forest habitat, the better we can inform habitat improvements that will help to sustain the red squirrel population.

To support Michael and the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Project, please donate here