Funding crisis for squirrel group
LITTLE did the Victorians realise when they introduced grey squirrels to the UK in the 1870s they were responsible for posing the main threat to the native red population.
It is a battle which has raged ever since and for one Eden conservation group it could be the end of the fight unless new funding can be found.
Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group was formed in 1994 and currently supports five red squirrel rangers across the district.
There are only around 20,000 red squirrels left in England — mainly in Cumbria and Northumberland — compared with more than three million greys.
The decline of the reds can be directly linked with the greys which were introduced from America in 1876, as fashionable additions to estates, and since then their population has exploded.
This is because the larger greys compete for food and shelter, forcing the red population into other areas, and they also carry squirrel pox virus.
Grey squirrels have a natural immunity to the disease but, once infected, reds die of starvation or dehydration within one or two weeks. In the UK, grey squirrels are classed as vermin and it is illegal to release one back into the wild once it has been caught.
Robert Benson, the chairman of Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group, said the charity is volunteer-led but needed to raise £100,000 every year just to cover running costs. He added: “Every penny we raise goes into red squirrel conservation.”
The group’s five squirrel rangers cover a total area of 650 square miles, including the Upper Eden Valley, Whinfell, Ullswater, Greystoke, the northern Eden Valley, Hutton, Caldbeck and Dalston areas.
Robert, who is 64 and from the Tirril area, said the conservation work was important but the group needed to find new sources of funding including increasing the charity’s membership.
“We want to reawaken awareness. We need support from local people and local businesses in order that we can keep going,” he said.
Robert said holiday company Center Parcs had been very supportive of the group’s work, and was key to the charity’s development, with its own dedicated squirrel ranger. He added: “Center Parcs recognises the value of having red squirrels in their village.”
His own interest in conservation began when he was a young child. He said: “My interest in red squirrels started in Hampshire as a small lad. We had a mother red squirrel drown in a water butt so we had a pet red squirrel (her orphaned young) when I was about four years old. In next to no time we had no red squirrels at all.”
He said that was around 1956 and he was amazed at the speed of their decline. He added: “For many people they see this grey creature with a fluffy tail. They’ve done incredibly well, they’ve taken over the country.”
Robert said that, apart from in two or three isolated pockets, England had lost red squirrels completely and if the charity had to close within 18 months then five years’ work would be undone.
He said they would initially “shrink” the operation but could eventually be forced to wind up the group.
Treasurer Julie Bailey, who is 50 and from Armathwaite, said funding had previously been provided by a number of sources, including the English Woodland Grant Scheme, the Grey Squirrel Control Fund and Landfill Tax, as well as local landowners who support the charity.
She said some of those sources of funding had “dried up” and added: “We are still recruiting new members and we have since revamped the whole membership project.”
To become a member or to find out more visit www.penrithredsquirrels.org.uk