About Clocaenog Forest
Clocaenog Forest is a large (5500 hectare) upland commercial conifer plantation in north Wales bordering Denbighshire and Conwy and managed by Natural Resources Wales (NRW). The forest is dominated by Sitka spruce but also has widely dispersed stands of tree species more suitable to red squirrels such as Norway spruce, larch and pine.
This upland forest sits between 300 and 500m above sea level and is surrounded by moorland and farmland to the north and west making it somewhat of an island. This is thought to be the saving factor of the red squirrel as the geography has acted as a partial barrier to the incursion of grey squirrels.
Planted in the 1930’s, it wasn’t until 1950 that red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) started making use of the food that the maturing trees started to offer. The forest, now with large areas of mature trees, offers a rich mosaic of food sources that occur year round which is a huge benefit to red squirrels.
Although is it owned by the Welsh Government, the management of the forest is carried out by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) who do so as a commercial enterprise. Clocaenog Forest is also home to a wealth of wildlife including European Protected Species (EPS) such as hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) and several species of bat.
Clocaenog Forest is home to a very small population of red squirrels which are a high priority in terms of the way in which the forest is managed. NRW take great care over their Forest Management Plan (FMP) which dictates when and where trees can be felled without causing harm to any of the protected species including red squirrels.
The FMP is to ensure a constant supply of food, cover and resources via a mosaic of different tree species and ages. This provides suitable habitat for the small population of red squirrels whilst still making the forest economically viable. Occurrences of broadleaved trees such as oak and beech have been reduced in order to remove food sources that are preferred by grey squirrels. A study in 1996, a good mast year, showed grey squirrels significantly using the beech mast resource.
Brief history of Red Squirrels in Clocaenog Forest
Clocaenog Forest has previously been identified as one of three strongholds for red squirrels in Wales. The others being in mid-Wales where the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales are working with local volunteers to increase the population and of course Anglesey.
In the 1990’s red squirrels were widespread in the forest and were considered to be Wales’ largest population until the success on Anglesey.
The extent of Sitka spruce makes the forest less attractive to grey squirrels as the small seed size means it is harder for them to get enough energy from the seeds. Red squirrels, being more arboreal than the American invaders, are therefore better equipped to forage on these smaller seeds together with areas of pine and Norway spruce. Getting the balance right is crucial to safeguarding the population.
The reds of Clocaenog have been much studied. Dr Sarah Cartmel carried out research into the ecology of both species in the late 90’s and this has been used to improve the management of the forest to support red squirrels. Unfortunately, woodland management on its own is not enough to safeguard the population. Grey squirrels continue to access the forest, competing with the reds for food and potentially spreading disease. NRW have been undertaking grey squirrel control throughout the forest for a number of years.
Despite all this, population estimates and sightings information suggested that the population has declined significantly in recent years. However, red squirrels in upland areas are notoriously difficult to survey so it has been difficult to be sure. But in 2014, the Mammals in a Sustainable Environments MISE) project set up monitoring using trail cameras and feeder boxes for the first time. The volunteers running these cameras were very excited to discover images of red squirrels within a month.
The graphic below gives some idea of how red squirrels have fared over the last 20-years. As you can see in 2011/12 survey results, no reds were seen/caught.
Here and now. Red Squirrels United and Clocaenog Forest
Following the monitoring successes of the MISE project, funding was secured through the Red Squirrels United project. This is a 3-year heritage lottery funded programme which covers key sites in Wales, England and Northern Ireland. Since 2016, the project has been working to turn the fate of Clocaenog’s red squirrels around. Clocaenog now has a Red Squirrel Ranger who has enlisted the help of local people and communities who have been trained in how to monitor the reds but most importantly how to control grey squirrels and reduce the impact of their presence in the forest.
School sessions for Key Stage 2 pupils, illustrated presentations and stalls at shows and events have ensured that local communities are aware of what we are doing and how they can help us halt the decline of red squirrels in Clocaenog Forest.
From this project, Clocaenog Red Squirrels Trust (CRST) has been born! The Trust’s membership consists of local residents and people from surrounding areas who are committed and passionate about red squirrel conservation in Clocaenog Forest. The group is a fully constituted voluntary organisation with committee representatives made up from the Trust’s wider membership.