Red squirrel populations have been under tremendous pressure in the UK since the 1950s, but conservation efforts are now helping this endearing mammal to survive

Everyone loves a red squirrel, how could you not fall for the russet red furry coat, large ear tufts and twitching tail?

Historic predictions of the imminent extinction of the red squirrel in the UK have proved inaccurate

They are adored by people across the country as approachable and beautiful animals associated with glorious landscapes of many types, from the mountain woodlands to urban gardens.

And for nearly 10,000 years this once common mammal has been a part of the UK’s natural heritage; a familiar sight roaming freely across the country, providing inspiration for art, literature and culture for centuries.

But their fortunes have changed drastically since the 1950’s, with numbers of red squirrels in the UK plummeting from around 3.5 million to perhaps less than 140,000 today.

Most of us will know the story of their continued decline: out competed for resources by the introduced grey squirrel, decimated by a deadly pox virus, and the loss and fragmentation of their woodland habitat. What many of us might not realise is the massive conservation effort that continually protects the reds in their few remaining strongholds.

“Thousands of people and organisations have been working together with great effect across parts of the UK to stop the loss of red squirrels,” explains Nick Mason, red squirrel north east project manager for Northumberland Wildlife Trust.

Importantly he says that in Scotland, northern England and a part of Wales, the red squirrel range now appears stable.

Red Squirrel United

The main conservation technique to help the reds, explains Mr Mason, is local population management of grey squirrels.

That’s not to say grey squirrels are all bad. They recognise that the non-native grey squirrel is much loved and valued as an entertaining garden visitor in many parts of the country, often acting as a good introduction to wild mammals at home.

We know how much of a negative impact grey squirrels do have on our native red squirrels

But he says, “We know how much of a negative impact grey squirrels do have on our native red squirrels and are committed to addressing these impacts in areas where red squirrels are still present.

“Sadly this involves the humane capture and killing of grey squirrels as the interaction between the two squirrel species is the primary cause of red squirrels' UK decline,” Mr Mason tells BBC Earth.

With grey squirrel management backed up by scientific monitoring and research to help us assess the impact of this challenging conservation work.

Other efforts concentrate on red squirrels’ habitat, such as designing and managing forests that deter greys and encourage reds; establishing buffer zones around areas where they are present; and continued monitoring and education.

And the new kid on the block is the pine marten. It has been recently observed that in areas where they are present there are fewer grey squirrels, leading to speculation that pine martens could act as a natural biological control, leaving the door open for red squirrels to come back and flourish in these areas.

Furthermore an exciting new four year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and led by the Wildlife Trusts, is set to protect the future of our native red squirrel. Called Red Squirrel United, it aims to bring partners together from across the UK to protect red squirrels through communication, education and conservation across the borders.

“Red Squirrels United will help us all learn ever more from one another and encourage new communities to get involved for the first time. The project is a huge statement of our collective confidence that red squirrels are here in the UK to stay,” says Mr Mason.

A safe haven

While Scotland may have more than 70% of the UK’s red squirrel population, Wales on the other hand has just an estimated 1,500 individuals, according to Dr Craig Shuttleworth, conservation adviser to the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.

The three main areas where they are found are Clocaenog in Denbighshire, which could have as few as 50 animals, mid Wales, which has around 300 – 350, but the site with the most squirrels by far is the island of Anglesey, off the north-west coast, with around 700.

“It was pretty bleak here but has improved. Anglesey only had 40 reds on it when we started and now it has 700, if we had left it alone the reds would have become extinct on the island,” he tells BBC Earth.

And he is very positive that Anglesey will remain "grey free": "We’ve learned lessons about conservation that is evolving locally to fit with local scenarios rather than the broad brush approach there used to be across the UK."

Having volunteers and the community involved also gives a sense of sustainability and ownership, and that’s key, he says, because if people take ownership they become stewards and then really want to have a say in the management.

We’ve learned lessons about conservation that is evolving locally to fit with local scenarios

But a lot could depend on the pine marten and how far red squirrel numbers increase in Wales. If pine martens start to have an impact, it could have a big, positive effect on the numbers of reds. But if they don’t, then it will have to be done by people, which is expensive and doesn’t cover huge areas.

“Although in terms of numbers we haven’t got that many I don’t think it will drop any lower than it is now and can only go up and it will do.

“In five years’ time we’ll have a better idea,” says Shuttleworth.

Red Squirrel Week

It’s largely thanks to this continuing conservation work that we can celebrate this adorable mammal during the Wildlife Trust’s annual Red Squirrel Week, which runs 26 Sept – 4 Oct.

There are only a few areas where these radiant redheads can be seen, such as Scotland, the Lake District and Northumberland. With some smaller, more isolated populations in Formby in Lancashire, Brownsea Island in Dorset and the Isle of Wight and obviously not forgetting those on Anglesey.

So to help you spot a red squirrel this week, Nick Mason has some hints and tips that will help you identify the signs that reds are about.

First of all, he says, look out for the animals themselves. This is because, thankfully, millions of people across the UK are still lucky enough to have reds visiting their garden, or breeding in local woodlands.

“Historic predictions of the imminent extinction of the red squirrel in the UK have proved inaccurate thanks to the huge commitment of local people and a huge range of organisations in tackling this huge conservation challenge,” he says.

More subtle signs often include chewed nuts and conifer cones on the ground in woodlands, or the round stick nest, known as dreys, often seen close to the trunk of mature trees. Also use your ears, as red squirrels will also make loud ‘chittering’ noises when alarmed, or signalling to other animals.

A massive thank you to the Springwatch social media community, who kindly answered our call to submit their brilliant images to a Autumnwatch Flickr group thread to help us celebrate 2015's Red Squirrel Week.

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