GREY squirrel sightings have reached record levels in Ponteland, but the fight goes on to save the native reds.
The Ponteland Red Squirrels group has warned that reports of greys around Ponteland and Darras Hall have trebled in the past year, with more than 40 spotted in 2010 compared with an average of between eight and 14 in previous years.
Campaigners blame a lack of control measures in neighbouring areas, and say the presence of greys is devastating for Northumberland’s native red squirrels as the two species can not co-exist. Greys carry the pox virus, which though harmless to them is deadly to reds, and they also compete for food, invade dreys and drive away red males.
Two red squirrels in the area were found to have died of the pox in October, but it is feared that many more may have succumbed.
Ponteland Red Squirrels Chairman Sally Hardy said: “We found two red squirrels with the pox, but how many actually died, we can never be sure. We expect there would have been more. Last year we had a much higher influx of grey squirrels into the area, which was disappointing.
“The problem is there is very little being done anywhere else. Nobody is trapping in the Gosforth area and the grey squirrels are coming from Gateshead to Newcastle and along the Tyne, as well as from Newburn.
“Unfortunately, reds and greys can’t live together. It would be nice in an ideal world, but they can’t — if grey squirrels are around then our reds disappear. If we want red squirrels we have to get rid of the greys.”
The group is hoping that the recently launched Red Squirrels North England project, which is backed by the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, Forestry Commission, Natural England and the Wildlife Trusts, will unite conservation efforts and provide funding for grey squirrel monitoring and control.
However, Mrs Hardy warns that Ponteland’s squirrels are also facing more localised threats.
“One of the biggest threats to our squirrels has been road kill,” she said.
“In 2008 and 2009 we had 23 red squirrels killed on our roads each year. We had 14 last year, but that could be down to there being less red squirrels around generally.
“We would just appeal to people to be careful on the roads. Like most animals, red squirrels don’t have much road sense so if anyone sees a red squirrel on a verge or pavement don’t assume that it won’t run into the road and please slow down.”
There have also been problems of a loss of habitat.
“We would ask people to plant trees and keep trees rather than cutting them down,” said Mrs Hardy.
“We are trying to maintain our wildlife corridor and the loss of trees has been a big issue in the demise of our reds.
“Darras Hall has changed a lot over the last seven years, particularly with a lot of new buildings. I’m not against new buildings or the knocking down of old buildings, but it would be helpful if people tried to keep their trees or plant new ones if they have to cut any down.”
However, it is not all bad news for Ponteland’s red squirrels as dozens of residents are taking measures to help their numbers and Waitrose has announced that there will soon be a cash boost for the conservation group from an appeal in its local store.
Conservationists are also planning an Annual General Meeting and a display to show people how they can help.
“On a positive note, we still have red squirrels in the area and we get daily reports of sightings,” said Mrs Hardy.
“We are really pleased that everybody seems to be behind our red squirrels.
“People can really help us by reporting sightings of red and grey squirrels, and also telling us if they used to have them in their gardens, but don’t see them any more.
“Residents can also help by buying a calendar or one of our soft squirrels to go towards trapping assets and feed, and we are always looking for helpers. It can be something like delivering newsletters, or helping to trap, or doing other general duties.
“It is also really important to supplement feed as it keeps the red squirrels healthy and the females can breed more often. They particularly like hazelnuts.”
She added: “We are really pleased that our efforts are being rewarded by still having red squirrels in Ponteland. Without the efforts of the group and all the residents getting behind us we wouldn’t have red squirrels here now.
“We are hoping that we can keep our red squirrels and if people continue to report sightings and feed them I can’t see any reason why we can’t.”
For more information about the group, or to report sightings of squirrels, call 07878 061880 or visit www.pontelandredsquirrels.co.uk