We have recently returned from a stay at Center Parcs Whinfell, which is in Penrith, Cumbria. It just so happens that Whinfell forest is one of the few remaining areas of the UK that has a population of red squirrels. It is a red squirrel conservation area and rangers are employed to solely ensure that the population doesn’t decline further.
Unfortunately we learned at the red squirrel family adventure that we attended on our first morning,that the plight of the red squirrel population in the UK is now suffering another blow as a squirrel pox virus has infected and killed a number of red squirrels within the forest.
The red squirrel pox virus is usually fatal to red squirrels and is extremely contagious. The ranger we spoke to was unsure as to how the squirrels have been infected, the disease is carried by the grey squirrel, however a grey squirrel hasn’t been seen at Whinfell for a number of years. The grey squirrel doesn’t suffer from the disease as they have had many years to develop immunity.
In order to try and stop the spread of the disease the rangers have removed squirrel feeders from the rangers lodge feeding area at Center Parcs. This is to reduce the contact the squirrels have with each other, thereby decreasing the chance of the disease passing from squirrel to squirrel, this also eliminates the risk of the feeding stations becoming contaminated.
The red squirrel pox virus is considered to be a significant reason as to why the red squirrel population of the UK is in decline.
The main threat to the red squirrel population is the grey squirrel. The grey squirrel was first introduced to Britain in the 1870’s and adapted a bit too well to Britain’s habitat. The grey squirrel has caused the spread of the squirrel pox disease, also the grey squirrel is much larger than the red and therefore requires more food to survive. The lack of remaining food within the woodland puts the red squirrel under stress, which in turn affects their breeding rates. The grey squirrels are also able to digest acorns, abundant in the British woodland, where as red squirrels can’t. Another factor attributed to the decline of the red squirrel is due to the reduction in coniferous and broadleaf forests which is their natural habitat.
The ranger explained to us that there has been discussion in parts of the country regarding the re introduction of the pine martin. The pine martin is a natural predator of the squirrel. The reason behind this, is that the grey squirrels live closer to the ground than the red squirrel – who prefer to live in the treetops. Therefore the pine martin could be used to control the grey squirrel population as they would be the first choice of food for the pine martin. However the risk is that once the grey squirrels are under control the pine martin would feed then on the red squirrel.
As a family we certainly noticed the lack of red squirrels at Whinfell, in fact during the whole of our stay we didn’t see one. This is in contrast to last February when we saw quite a few. We really hope that the spread of the disease can be controlled and it is reassuring to see the steps taken by the rangers. The red squirrel is such a charming creature and are wonderful to watch in the wild. They are also native to our country.