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Sunday, September 19, 1999 Published at 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK


Red squirrels find safe refuge

Welfare of red squirrels will come before their grey cousins

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Help is at hand for at least a few members of one of the UK's most endangered mammals, the red squirrel, with the opening on 20 September of a nature reserve designed to protect them.

The sanctuary, which is only five miles from the centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, has been established by the Wildlife Trusts, the national body which co-ordinates the work of 46 county trusts.

[ image: Nature reserve will keep grey squirrels at bay]
Nature reserve will keep grey squirrels at bay
It marks the first time the trusts have allocated a reserve to the conservation of a single species.

Measures taken to protect the squirrels there will include planting squirrel-friendly trees, checking the animals' numbers, giving them extra food, and - if need be - controlling the encroaching grey squirrel population.

There are now no more than 160,000 red squirrels in the whole of Britain, most of them in Scotland, with smaller numbers in northern England and Wales. The number in Northern Ireland is unknown.

One of the pressures they face is habitat loss, but a significant feature in their decline is the unstoppable advance of the greys.

Once the grey squirrels have established themselves in an area the reds seldom survive for more than 15 years.

Conservationists fear that all the native red squirrels in Britain could have vanished by 2010.

Better conditions

Northumberland, where the new reserve is sited, was the last county to remain free of greys, but they arrived there five years ago.

The director-general of the Wildlife Trusts, Dr Simon Lyster, said: "The work carried out for red squirrels at the new reserve is of national importance".

"Its aim is to improve conditions locally for red squirrels at a site that is particularly susceptible to the grey squirrel threat, and so it will act as a source of information to other wildlife reserves."

In the long term, the best way of helping the reds is to manage woodlands in their favour, planting the kinds of trees which suit them, like Scots and lodgepole pine, Norway spruce, yew, hazel and rose.

Creating corridors to link the sites where they live, and constructing buffer zones of bare land or dense pinewood around woodland to keep the greys at bay, can also help.

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