The story so far…
If anyone asks where they can see red squirrels in north Wales, they are told to visit the Isle of Anglesey. The Island has been grey squirrel-free since 2012 and now has a population of around 800 reds up from an all-time low of just 40 when it was in danger of becoming extinct on the Island.
However, few people know of the population in north east Wales in Clocaenog Forest which was at one time considered to be the last stronghold for reds in Wales.
Research over the years
Studies of the reds over the years in Clocaenog Forest including a PhD study between 2004 and 2006 showed that there was still a widespread population surviving in the Sitka Spruce-dominated habitat. In 2012 another trapping study was undertaken resulted in no reds being caught with only grey squirrels occurring instead. However, sightings and a road traffic accident (RTA) suggested reds were still present. It was questionable if the forest was still home to a sustainable population of red squirrels.
Time for action!
More recent monitoring and action
In 2014 red squirrels became a focus species for a number of time limited projects and initiatives which started to involve volunteer helpers from the local community and further afield. Several trail cameras and feeder boxes were installed. Locations for these were chosen where trees were coning or where red squirrels had been sighted in the past.
The cameras were monitored regularly and continued to be monitored by volunteers. Eventually a red was picked up in the far west of the forest evidencing that a population of some sort, no matter how small, still hung on.
Current project - Red Squirrels United (RSU)
In 2016 a three-year Red Squirrels United (RSU) project started. Red Squirrels Trust Wales (RSTW) was one of the project partners and through them the work in Clocaenog Forest continued. Becky Clews-Roberts began her role of Red Squirrel Ranger in October 2016 and quickly built momentum with a group of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers who were keen to investigate where the few remaining reds resided.
A total of 50 trail cameras trained on feeder boxes were installed across the forest. This effort was rewarded with several sightings of reds visiting feeders in the west and east of the forest. Becky has given many talks to local groups, schools and delivered or facilitated numerous volunteer training courses and awareness raising activities. Becky’s strategy was to help build local knowledge and confidence regarding red squirrel conservation.
In 2017 NRW embarked on a pilot reinforcement to avoid any genetic bottlenecking and to boost the red population. Hand-reared reds were sourced from collections across the UK and kept in enclosures that volunteers helped build. This soft release approach enabled regular health checks and gave time for the animals to become accustomed to their new surroundings. Volunteers visited enclosures daily to top up food, water and check overall health and welfare. This included Christmas Day!
Before the release hatches were opened, volunteers installed more cameras and feeders in an arc around the enclosures in the hope of following the reds’ dispersal. The reds didn’t disappoint and we now spend hours sifting through footage of them using the feeders.
Reinforcement - phase two
In late 2018 a second phase of reinforcement commenced. Additional enclosures were built with the aim of scaling-up efforts from the pilot programme. At the time of writing the ‘story so far’ phase two is still in progress. There have been challenges and difficulties, some of the released reds have not survived with evidence suggesting goshawk and pine martin predation as well as one RTA. Some losses are to be expected through the natural cycle of forest life. Undeterred, volunteers and conservationists from NRW continue with the reinforcement plan. An increased population means that any predation factors will have less of a marked effect.
Evidence continues to be collected to show that reintroduced and surviving reds are establishing themselves in the forest. Two of the released females have bred as trail cameras have captured images of juveniles around feeders. Because of this, the pilot reinforcement has been deemed a success. However, this has to be taken in the context of having a very low red population to start with.
A programme of radio-tracking
To compliment and support the reinforcement, a radio-tracking programme was instigated to assess how the new arrivals adapted to their new surroundings and to gain as much information as possible on their use of the forest. The first group of animals were too small when they were first released to fit radio collars so live trapping started under licence and five reds were recaptured. Dr Craig Shuttleworth (RSTW) fitted collars to four of these, one still being a bit too small.
Keen as ever, volunteers and rangers, having attended one of several radio tracking workshops, are now out regularly keeping track of our precious charges. This will help NRW to continue to adapt the forest management plan to ensure ongoing red squirrel survival. The reds will be re-trapped after a designated period to remove all collars.
Again, some animals from the second phase have been radio collared and are being tracked by volunteers and conservationists. As already stated, phase two releases are still underway as of March 2019.
2019 is the final year of the RSU programme! Everyone knew that this was a time limited project. Consequently, talks and discussions got underway about how red squirrel conservation could continue in Clocaenog Forest. With the help of Becky, Clocaenog Red Squirrel Trust (CRST) has been born. CRST is a formally constituted voluntary organisation which consists of local residents and people from the surrounding area who want to protect and conserve red squirrels. CRST now has a committee made-up of the Trust’s wider membership. The committee has already had a number of meetings in preparation for helping to take on the task of red squirrel conservation in Clocaenog Forest.
…to be continued!