The future is looking a little brighter for red squirrels in Wales. On Monday 22nd May a group of conservationists, foresters and volunteers came together for the launch of the first Habitat Management Plan for red squirrels in mid Wales. The Plan is a collaboration between The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW), private forestry companies and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and aims to help the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Partnership (MWRSP) in achieving its purpose of maintaining and enhancing the red squirrel population and its habitat in mid Wales.
As WTSWW's Red Squirrel Officer Becky Hulme explained: “Good forest design can maintain and improve the habitat that is available for red squirrels and limit the potential for grey squirrel incursions. To safeguard the red squirrel population in the Focal Site a balance needs to be maintained between ensuring sufficient feeding habitat for red squirrels without encouraging grey squirrels. Patches of good feeding habitat are needed within a wider matrix of lower quality habitat; forest connectivity needs to be maintained between these Key Areas throughout the felling cycles to enable red squirrels to move between patches of feeding habitat.”
The 5 year Management Plan consists of a series of individual site plans, all of which are accompanied by notes on future management and suitability for red squirrels.
Becky commented, “the Plan couldn't have been produced without the support and cooperation of all the forest managers involved, as well as the many hours work that volunteers have contributed in creating the mapping for all 34 of the sites."
Current threats to the habitat of the red squirrel population in mid Wales include the large size, location and scale of clear-fell coupes and inappropriate clear-felling of key species which red squirrel rely on as a food source. Larch felling as a reaction to Phytophthora ramorum disease has been and will be a factor leading to further felling in the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Focal Site.
“Inappropriate felling can have a negative effect on red squirrels by removing arboreal connectivity, destroying breeding and feeding sites and degrading the habitat suitability for red squirrels” explained Becky. “This can cause forest fragmentation and habitat isolation, reducing the total area of suitable habitat but also reducing the ability of red squirrels to use the available habitat, leading to local extinction of red squirrel populations.”
The failure to replant some important tree species is another potential threat to future red squirrel food supplies and habitat. On top of this, in the near future, the proposed programme of open peat restoration, involving the removal of tree cover, could be a considerable threat to habitat availability for red squirrels in mid Wales.
With all of the current threats to the forests of mid Wales, there is no better time than the present for stakeholders to come together to develop a plan for retaining and enhancing red squirrel habitat. The MWRSP aims to develop the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Focal Site as an example of best practice for integrating commercial timber objectives with biodiversity objectives.
The forest industry is sometimes seen as posing a threat to native wildlife, however, Becky pointed out “It must be remembered that the main reason that red squirrels have been able to persist in the forests of mid Wales is due to the composition of plantation forestry making the area relatively unsuitable for grey squirrels. Without the large forestry plantations in and around the Tywi valley, the colonisation of non-native grey squirrels in mid Wales would have heralded the demise of the red squirrel, as is the case in most of Britain.”
Although the non-native forests in mid Wales were not planted with the aim of conserving red squirrels; the creation of habitat suitable for red squirrels has been a fortunate by-product of this process.
Becky continued, “The forest industry’s continued contribution to the conservation of this threatened native species can only be sustained if the requirement for a commercial return from crops is acknowledged. However, if certain principles are followed, the conservation of red squirrels can go hand-in-hand with a commercial enterprise.”
Television presenter and nature-lover, Iolo Williams agrees that a partnership approach to land management, involving all of the stakeholders in the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Focal Site, is the only approach that will secure suitable habitat and a future for the red squirrel in mid Wales. Iolo sees the creation of the Management Plan as instrumental in securing the future of red squirrels in Wales:
“The creation of this forest management plan is a really big step forward in the fight to save red squirrels in mid Wales. We know the mid Wales forests are really important, because they are home to one of only three significant populations of red squirrels left in Wales. I’m delighted that such a positive step has been developed by foresters and conservationists coming together to create a plan that works for everyone. If we can build on this first step we can be hopeful for the future of our red squirrels.”