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Time to appreciate squirrels just a little bit more: (It's Squirrel Appreciation Day...)

PUBLISHED: 08:30 21 January 2019

Red Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Red Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, there are two trains of thought about the squirrel: some think them cute and cuddly, others consider them to be little more than tree rats. On Squirrel Appreciation Day, we look at why Norfolk squirrels are helping stem the decline of the famous red squirrel.

Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day, a whole day dedicated to our furry friends in the forest (which coincidentally is the same day as National One Liner Day AND Blue Monday, just don’t tell the squirrels) both red and grey.

While the nation has been quick to take the red squirrel to its heart – in no small part due to the fact that they were the emblem of the road safety Tufty Club – the grey squirrel has struggled to find such a welcoming fan base. BBC presenter Chris Packham calls them “Britain’s most unpopular non-native invader” and The Wildlife Trust announced in February 2017 that it would be recruiting volunteers to monitor red squirrel numbers and “deal with” their grey nemesis.

Millions of grey squirrels have spread through England and into Scotland, out-competing the 140,000 or so remaining red squirrels and spreading the deadly squirrelpox virus which is harmless to greys but kills red squirrels. Experts have revealed that, unless preventative action is taken, the red squirrel could be extinct within 35 years.

While the red squirrel was once commonplace in Britain’s woodlands, the introduction of the grey squirrel in the 19th century from America brought with it the squirrelpox virus which significantly contributed to the decline of its red counterpart.

Red Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodRed Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Once thriving in Thetford Forest, the red squirrel has now all but died out in the area - Norfolk was one of the last red squirrel strongholds in the UK, now it is unlikely we will see the species in the wild for many years, if at all.

Prince Charles lent his support to the ginger mammal when he called for it to be made the country’s mascot - the prince, patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, has also called for the culling of the larger and more dominant grey squirrel.

“For me the battle for the red squirrel is iconic,” he said. “It wasn’t so long ago that reds were common all over Britain. The grey has to be one of the most disastrous introductions of foreign species there has ever been. I believe the red should become a national mascot.”

While culling is, unsurprisingly, controversial, monitoring has proven that once an area has been cleared of grey squirrels, the reds will quickly return. Anglesey in particular is a stronghold for the red squirrel, which is the UK’s only native squirrel species, after a programme designed to dramatically reduce the grey squirrel population in Wales.

Red Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodRed Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

David Martin is countryside manager at Kelling Heath Holiday Park in north Norfolk where captive red squirrels are part of a national scheme for captive breeding. Since 1999, the park has bred more than 35 kittens which have either been sent to other enclosures or released into safe areas in the wild where they can thrive.

Kelling - which adopted the red squirrel as its emblem before it embarked on the breeding programme – has a pen close to the reception area of the holiday complex where visitors can see the park’s red squirrels, who have become celebrities in their own right. Red and Ginger (the latter being the female of the pair) were put together in the winter and have already produced four kittens and Mr Martin hopes another litter will arrive in the summer.

“I have been going into the squirrel enclosure to feed them and clean the pen every day for the past 15 years,” said Mr Martin, “you get to know the squirrels over the years and it’s impossible not to get attached to them, even though they’re actually quite shy once you get into the pen.

“They will come out and see what’s going on if they’re on their own, but they do hide up if I go in. If you’re outside, they’re really friendly and inquisitive and they’re not at all worried about people peering in and looking at them. They’re incredibly popular with our guests.”

Red Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodRed Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

It is essential that grey squirrels – which are a common sight at Kelling Heath – are kept away from the red squirrels, and so humane traps prevent them from coming into contact with the breeding pair to protect Red and Ginger from squirrelpox.

There are two enclosures at Kelling, one to house Red and Ginger and another for their young when they reach the age of 12 weeks.

“At that point in the wild, the parents would start to try and drive the young away to start their own lives elsewhere, but of course in a pen that’s not practical and they have to be moved so that no distress is caused. So the young are next door to Mum and Dad before they move on.”

Two of the red squirrels born at Kelling Heath last year were released in North Wales as part of a breed and release programme led by Pensthorpe Conservation Trust (PCT), a wildlife and ecology charity based at Pensthorpe Natural Park, near Fakenham, in December.

David Martin at the Red Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodDavid Martin at the Red Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

The Kelling kittens joined a further four reds which had been bred and reared by the East Anglian Red Squirrel Group, in being relocated to Clocaenog Forest near Ruthin, where red squirrel populations have declined from 400 to less than 50 in the past 20 years.

Working with Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Clocaenog Forest has been identified as one of three ‘Focal Sites’ for red squirrel conservation, it is hoped that the latest squirrels from Norfolk can help to secure the future of the species. Another kitten went to create a new pair of breeding squirrels at Themelthorpe near Reepham.

Mr Martin said that breeding squirrels in captivity was difficult and that conditions had to be perfect for the flame-furred creatures to oblige with a litter – he also said that they were somewhat picky about what they like to eat, with corn on the cob (“only fresh”), mushrooms, butternut squash, pine nuts, sweet chestnuts, cucumber, carrot and hazelnuts hits on the Kelling menu.

“They also love arrowroot sugar-free biscuits, but they’re just a treat,” he laughed, “they had the biscuits at Christmas along with butternut squash and we put Scots Pines in their pen as Christmas trees for them to climb in!

Red Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie HoneywoodRed Squirrel Breeding Programme at Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Norfolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

“It’s important to keep the squirrels stimulated with new things in their environment or they get bored. Having said that, when I put their food in a bird feeder to stimulate them it took them a week to even go near it! Greys, as people know, would have eaten the lot straight away!”

And Mr Martin confirmed that despite having their food brought to them, the squirrels were still programmed to hide their food which was often found during cage clean-outs.

“There will be a massive stash of hazelnuts, most of which have rotted because the squirrels don’t remember where they’ve put them!” Mr Martin said, “it’s clever to have food reserves, but only if you can find them when you need them!”

* Find out more about red squirrels here: www.rsst.org.uk

10 squirrel facts

1) Bush(y tail) telegraph: Squirrels use their tails as signalling devices to let other squirrels know of potential danger.

2) They are masters of disguise: In order to deceive onlookers, squirrels are known to put on elaborate bogus food burying displays so that potential thieves are led to a site that doesn’t contain their stash of nuts.

3) Snow joke: They can find food buried underneath a foot of snow using their noses.

4) Squirrel buddies: In the mid-1800s, cities started to introduce squirrels to urban parks in America to offer city dwellers the chance to see wildlife. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton said in 1914 that “missionary squirrels” should be introduced into cities so that boys could befriend them and establish trusting, sympathetic and paternalistic relationships with “animal others”.

5) Running jump: A squirrel can leap more than 10 times their own body length and turn their ankles 180 degrees to face any direction when they are climbing. Additionally, their hind legs are double-jointed, giving them the ability to run up and down trees quickly.

6) What’s in a name? In Greek, the word ‘squirrel’ means ‘shadow tail’.

7) A nose for romance: A male squirrel can sniff out a female in heat from up to a mile away.

8) Viking links: Squirrels may be to blame for the leprosy which spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts.

9) Squirrels in high places:Warren G Harding, the 29th president of the United States of America, kept a squirrel called Pete who would sometimes accompany him to White House meetings where members of the cabinets brought him nuts.

10) In the nursery: A newborn squirrel is about an inch long - which is a cute enough reason to appreciate them today.

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