WITH predictions that the UK’s native red squirrel could be extinct in ten years, Red Squirrel Week, running all this week, is the perfect time to find out how you can further protect our russet friends.

Victoria Benn visits Kilnsey Park, home of a successful breeding programme, to find out more.

Although most famous for its fresh water lakes and rainbow trout, Kilnsey Park has been part of the pioneering Red Squirrel Captive Breeding Programme for over 20 years, working in tandem with the British Wildlife Centre to ensure that the gene pool of UK red squirrels is as large as possible.

This, it is hoped, in conjunction with further awareness raising like this week’s annual Red Squirrel Week, will prevent their extinction – although the current situation has now reached crisis point.

“Red Squirrels once lived in the wild all over the UK,” said Vanessa Roberts, founder of the Kilnsey Park programme in 1998.

She added: “Grey squirrels were only brought to the UK in the 1800s, with the first reported record of them escaping and forming a wild population being in 1876.

Since that date there’s been a catastrophic decline in the numbers of red squirrels as the grey population has gradually spread northwards.

“Up until the 1960s red squirrels were a common sight across Dales’ woodlands, but now there’s just a very few left in a woodland near Hawes.

“Fortunately there are now organisations working to reintroduce reds and control greys and we’re very proud that some of the squirrels we’ve bred have become part of the new reintroduced population on Anglesey.”

Populations are currently estimated at approximately 140,000 for native red squirrels and 2.5 million for grey squirrels.

Despite the fact that red squirrels have been in existence for around 10,000 years, it is estimated that unless more secure red colonies are established they will continue their catastrophic decline.

Competition for food and shelter – and in particular the squirrel pox virus – which grey squirrels carry and spread but does not impact their health, are the major factors attributed to red squirrel decline.

Without additional help red squirrels could, unbelievably, become extinct in England in the next 10 years.

To further develop the vital work that Vanessa is carrying out at Kilnsey Park, she is now looking for part-time conservation volunteers to help with caring for the squirrels and developing fundraising activities.

“Kilnsey Park is currently home to 10 red squirrels,” said Vanessa. “It is a population that needs careful management so we can keep growing it.

“We swap squirrels with other national breeding collections to prevent inbreeding.

“Daily tasks involved include feeding the squirrels their favourite foods such as sweetcorn, hazelnuts and even cuttlefish for calcium.

Their dreys also need periodically checking to ensure they are warm and dry.”

The breeding season is spring, with the kittens usually born around May or June, a period which also requires additional care and attention to ensure the newborns, which are hairless and blind for the first month, are undisturbed and safe.

“I did once have a very poorly kitten that had fallen out of its drey,” recalls Vanessa. “Against the odds I managed to nurse it back to health by feeding it a syringe of goat’s milk every day and keeping it cosy and safe inside a sheepskin slipper.

Within a few weeks Tufty was fit and well and running around again. Usually I have a strict ‘no handling policy’ but this was obviously an emergency circumstance.”

Kilnsey Park is also hoping to enlist volunteer help to further develop the educational aspect of the programme at Kilnsey, as well as re-starting a squirrel adoption programme to support with the running costs of the breeding programme.

“We’ve managed to raise a lot of money over the years to support red squirrels,” said Vanessa adding: “One of the quirkiest things we did was to develop a Red Squirrel Beer with a local brewery which was featured on Channel 4.

It was nutty and red and went down well with local drinkers.

“Of course our dream is to have red squirrels living all over the Dales once more but there needs to be public and government support for that to happen.”

Anyone able to dedicate some time to Kilnsey Park’s red squirrel breeding programme can get more information by emailing: info@kilnseypark.co.uk