In parallel with the pine marten translocation is the work of the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Partnership (MWRSP) to encourage red squirrel populations in the area.
This year sightings of grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) have been far lower than expected. This may be due to the regular and prolonged wet weather deteriorating cached food supplies over winter 2015/16. Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) rely less on stored food. In addition, over 1000 individual greys’ have been trapped and removed from mid-Wales.
So what does the MWRSP identify as necessary to red squirrel survival? Habitat management and wildlife corridors are essential; and, controversial for some, is grey squirrel control. The Partnership’s ten years of research shows that focused control is key to conserving and supporting the red squirrel. This currently takes the form of a grey squirrel Trap Loan Scheme. In Wales it is believed that there are as many as 320 greys: 1 red squirrel (21:1 in England). One hundred years ago red squirrel populations were healthy but with the import of grey squirrels in the late 1800’s, by the 1950’s the reds were in demise. Greys out-compete them for food, occasionally eat them and also carry the parapox virus to which the reds are vulnerable.
Interestingly, experience in Ireland and Scotland shows that when pine marten return to an area, grey squirrel numbers are significantly reduced, and red squirrel population increases. Wales is ecologically different with much greater numbers of voles, a favoured part of the pine martens diet. However, there is a chance that the return of the pine marten will help the red squirrel in Mid Wales, and this is being researched as part of the pine marten recovery programme.
Although the red squirrel thrives best in broadleaved woodlands, the presence of grey squirrels competing for food and habitat loss has driven the few red squirrels left in mid Wales to survive in conifer plantations, particularly those that include pines and Norway Spruce. Such tree species provide a range of smaller seeded food sources. The density of the plantation trees also lend themselves to meeting the red’s preference to be arboreal.
A priority for the project is working to improve habitat of continuous woodland with wildlife corridors. The MWRSP is working closely with forest managers such as Tilhill and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to evolve innovative solutions to reduce the impact of clear-fell on the red squirrel. Populations in mid Wales are present in the Tywi Forest and surround which are ready for harvesting, so this is an essential time for Red Squirrel protection. Possible solutions include:
– long term retention of enough canopy cover to connect red squirrel areas to avoid fragmentation of habitat
– minimising size and rate of clear-fell; and
– restocking to include diversity of coniferous tree species. The MWRSP suggests a mix of conifer species which includes 10% – 15% of larger seeded conifers; and where restocking with deciduous trees occurs that smaller-seed species such as Rowan, Birch and Alder are included.
The mid Wales focal area for the Red Squirrel encompasses sites between Tregaron, Llandovery and Lampeter. Trail camera feeding sites at Llandewi Brefi and Llanfair Clydogau now see regular visits by red squirrels. Other camera traps in the area are monitored by much appreciated volunteers.
There are estimated to be over 1100 red squirrels in Wales, but around 700 are on Anglesey which has eradicated most of its grey squirrels. With the few hundred remaining at two focal areas in the remainder of Wales the mid Wales site (which includes parts of Powys, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire) harbours between 100 and 500 animals. This distribution brings the realisation of the red squirrels’ fragile existence and their need for support closer to home.
For more information on the red squirrel and its status in Wales; or if you see one please report the sighting to us or directly to http://www.midwalesredsquirrels.org.