The mid-Wales red squirrel partnership has been monitoring the local red squirrels for nearly 20 years now, but, in this time, it has never been possible to develop a good population estimate.
The early years of the Mid-Wales Red Squirrel Project were focused on proving that there were, indeed, still red squirrels surviving here, which in the days before trail cameras, was no easy task!
The red squirrels here in mid-Wales are the only population left in Wales which hasn’t had any support through reintroductions. This means it’s vitally important to maintain a close eye on the population to ensure that it’s not in decline, and to help guide our future conservation work.
The Healthy Reds project, which began in 2019 and runs until 2022, was aiming to learn how the red squirrels travel and use the mid-Wales red squirrel focal site, but due to repercussions of the pandemic, this is no longer possible in the time available.
However, we’re thrilled to have an alternative project plan approved by our funders, National Lottery Heritage Fund and WCVA/Landfill Tax grants, which is beginning now.
Instead of assessing how the red squirrels are doing by tracking individuals across the focal site, we are instead going to be trapping the squirrels in more locations, and taking hair samples (under licence from Natural Resources Wales (NRW)) which will be sent to the Biosciences Department of Swansea University for analysis.
The team, comprising Professor Sonia Consuegra, Professor Carlos Garcia de Leaniz, and Professor Luca Borger, will be analysing the DNA of the red squirrels from these hair samples.
DNA analysis of red squirrels in mid-Wales isn’t new, but what is new is the level we will be doing this. Previously, analysis has only been conducted to haplotype level, which shows the broad genetic groups, but no finer detail. You can read more about our previous work here.
The difference on this occasion, is that we will be taking the DNA analysis to a deeper level. You might be familiar with DNA tests that can be done on people to find relatives – this is going to be somewhat similar. By looking at the relatedness of individuals, we can develop a much clearer understanding of the population dynamics at work here in mid-Wales.
For example, if we take hair samples from a squirrel in Bryn Arau Duon, and find it is a close relative of a squirrel we’re taken a hair sample from in Clywedog, we will know that, recently at least, the red squirrels have been able to travel between these areas to access breeding opportunities.
Likewise, if we find that the squirrels in Clywedog are extremely distantly related to those in the Irfon, it might show that the habitat connectivity isn’t good enough to allow these squirrels to breed, and perhaps show that the squirrels are existing as isolated populations.
All of this will depend on how many squirrels we catch, and the level of analysis possible. However, this type of analysis is extremely valuable and we’re really excited to find out more vital information about how the population is doing. This will then inform our future work.
Sarah-Kay Purdon, Mid-Wales Red Squirrel Project Officer