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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 February, 2004, 07:05 GMT
Refuge offers red squirrels hope
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Red squirrel
The red is in retreat (Image: K Cook)
The UK's dwindling population of red squirrels has been thrown a lifeline with the opening of a forest refuge.

The inexorable advance of the grey squirrel has left the reds isolated in just a few parts of the country.

Whinfell Forest in Cumbria contains conifer trees disliked by greys and has been declared a haven for its red occupants, of which there are currently about 150.

A chain of similar refuges is planned across the north-west, one of the reds' last remaining strongholds in Britain.

The botanist David Bellamy, who is launching the haven, told BBC Radio Five Live that the large area of coniferous forest gave the animal a good chance to expand in numbers.

"If there's the right mixture with lots of conifers rather than too many bald leaf trees, then the red seems to win out over the grey," he said.

"This area is about 650 football pitches and there're 150 red squirrels there.

"Now working to give them a better chance is our best way of helping towards survival in the future."

Whinfell is the site of a holiday village owned by Center Parcs, which has set up the project with the forest's owners, the Lowther Estates, and Red Alert North West.

The Alert is a partnership of conservation groups, businesses and members of the public working to save the red squirrel.

Red squirrel
Reds are losing out in food competition (Image: S Street)
The species has declined rapidly over the last century because of competition and disease brought by the grey squirrel, introduced from North America.

Although the reds were once widespread, in England large numbers are now found only in Cumbria, Merseyside, Northumberland, Suffolk and the Isle of Wight.

There are only 30,000 in England, compared with two million grey squirrels.

Whinfell is the second in the chain of 18 refuges planned for the region.

Robert Benson of Lowther Estates said: "We have a thriving population of red squirrels here at Whinfell and we want to do as much as we can to keep it that way.

"A big forest like this can make a real difference towards protecting red squirrels so we wanted to help by growing the right sorts of trees."

Professor David Bellamy
"I want my great, great grandchildren to see red squirrels all over this bit of England"

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21 Sep 01  |  Science/Nature

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