THAT’S the question that Wildlife Trust Red Squirrel Officer, Becky Hulme is asking; and reports of sightings are coming in – many from the Llanfair Clydogau and Llanddwei Brefi areas.
Becky remarked: “People love seeing red squirrels in Wales; this native mammal really does make an impact with its striking russet coat and graceful movements. Many of the older generation remember seeing reds in on a regular basis; but that was back in the 1950s and early 60s before grey squirrels had really got a hold in mid Wales.”
Since the grey squirrel colonised, red squirrels have largely vanished from Wales. Until the late 1950s, the red squirrel was a common sight in mid Wales and an integral part of the Welsh landscape.
In 1958, a schoolteacher from Rhandirmwyn stated that a child had come into school with a report of a grey squirrel, one of the first in the area!
From then onwards it was downhill for the red squirrel, as the larger and more robust grey squirrel quickly moved into local woodlands, eating much of the available food and spreading squirrelpox virus, which the greys are immune to, but which is fatal to red squirrels.
A law was passed in 1938 banning further importation of grey squirrels, but the damage had been done; inadvertently heralding the demise of the red squirrel in Britain.
We now have only a little over a thousand red squirrels hanging on in Wales, in Anglesey, in the north east of the country, and here in mid Wales.
Anglesey is the real success-story in Wales; as part of a restoration project, they have cleared greys from the island and boosted the population of reds, thought to be as low as 40 individuals less than 20 years ago; Anglesey is now home to as many as 700 red squirrels.
The Mid Wales Red Squirrel Project (MWRSP) is a much younger project than its northern counterpart, but with the help of funding, originally through Environment Wales, a former Welsh Government funded initiative, work is getting underway to save the population of reds in mid Wales too.
“We know that we have a much reduced population of reds in mid Wales, but we’re keen to get a better idea of where and when red squirrels are active, so that we can help to protect them, and that’s where local people come in.” Becky explained, “It is locals, both working and living in the mid Wales red squirrel focal site that are most likely to spot red squirrels, usually as they a cross a road or open ground.”
The area centred round Llyn Brianne reservoir, bordered by Pontrhydfendigaid, Tregaron, Lampeter, Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells, was approved as a focal site for red squirrel conservation in 2009. Welsh Ministers agreed that urgent strategic action needed to be taken in order to conserve the population of reds in this area.
“As one of only three significant populations of red squirrels in Wales, our reds in mid Wales really do deserve some attention.” Becky explained, “we hope to restore the population by reducing the population of grey squirrels and by working with Natural Resources Wales and private forest managers to encourage appropriate forest management.”
The red squirrel project on Anglesey is an extremely successful conservation project and is direct evidence that removing grey squirrels leads to red squirrel population recovery.
However, Becky points out that this ambition can only be achieved with the support of local people: “Over the past year we’ve had over 80 people volunteer their time to help in the fight to save the red squirrel in mid Wales. Activities have ranged from help with publicity at shows and events to grey squirrel control to monitoring local red squirrel populations.”
A series of delightful photos from a trail camera located above Llanddewi Brefi show reds visiting a feeding station: “These photos really do illustrate the playful nature of these iconic mammals. It would be a real shame if we allowed our red squirrels become yet another extinction story.”