The Exmoor Squirrel Project – A farewell from us

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The Exmoor Squirrel Project

In January 2023 Three Atop Woodland Services Ltd joined forces with Red Squirrel South West and Exmoor National Park, funded by the Forestry Commission. We focused on a 35km stretch along the North Coast of Exmoor using its landscape as natural barriers. To one side the sea, to the other extensive and vast moorland.

Project Aims

The project aim is to drive down the invasive population of North American grey squirrel which has a significant detrimental impact on the health, condition, ecology, regenerative capacity and productivity of valuable trees, ancient woodlands and native wildlife in the project area. Leaving a legacy for future generations to take the reins and continue to help our native Red Squirrel.

Why can’t the Grey and Red squirrel live together?

  • Size and competition

The Grey squirrel is much larger than our native red, the grey will devour food sources quickly leaving the Red without. Greys are able to digest unripe food sources whereas, the red cannot. Without nourishment the Red squirrel is unable to thrive and therefore unable to breed. A Red squirrel will usually breed twice a year and raise around 2 kittens from each litter. The Grey squirrel can breed up to 4 times a year when mild and will raise around 4 kittens from each litter.

  • Squirrel Pox

Disease – British Red Squirrel

The most significant threat associated with grey squirrels is the spread and transmission of a disease called squirrelpox virus (SQPV). The grey squirrels carry the disease with no harmful effects to them. All it takes is one grey squirrel to introduce this virus to a local population of reds. The virus can quickly spread with devastating and fatal effects, wiping out entire colonies.

Is this not just the natural order?

The simple answer is no.

The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is one of Britain’s most iconic and beloved mammals. Once the most common and only squirrel in the UK, they are now under threat, primarily due to the

introduction of the non-native invasive grey squirrel from North America. The population in Great Britain is down to an estimated 120,000 for reds compared to an estimated 3,000,000 for greys. Reds risk extinction. As a result of this, red squirrels are classed as a priority species in the UK and are protected under law. The Law – British Red Squirrelhttps://squirrelaccord.uk/

Humans introduced the grey, it is up to us to repair the damage we have caused to our landscape. As a nation we have very loose controls over bringing in non-native animals, plants and foods. This causes an imbalance in our environment which is now showing in our woodlands.

Woodland Damage

The grey squirrel is wreaking havoc in our woodlands resulting in an estimated £40 million per year being lost through tree damage.

Over the years we have seen this worsen for ourselves, broadleaf tree bark stripped so badly that entire plantations need to be clear felled before they have reached their intended purpose. The timber being no more than firewood, and not great firewood at that!

Our native tree species are being stripped bare. The trees will overcompensate, warp and fight to repair before eventually turning into standing deadwood. This is an awful waste and has a devastating impact on the future of our Exmoor landscape.

Damage to young plantations will seriously jeopardise efforts to establish new woodlands for nature recovery, natural flood management, carbon sequestration, and sustainable timber production.

Greys will target; Oak, Beech, Field Maple, Hornbeam, Silver Birch, Sweet Chestnut, Sycamore and Willow, amongst others!

Research shows we can scope out our woodlands to check for signs of damage, meaning we have the ability to predict and prevent this catastrophic behaviour.

The Grey squirrel is looking for the sweet sap in the phloem. The greys test the tree by initially stripping a thumbnail sized patch. Then again leaving a hand sized patch. By doing this over a period of time the greys are influencing the rate of sap produced thus forth, forcing trees into fight and repair mode. By having a knowledge and understanding of their behavioural patterns, how to identify tested areas and a true understanding of the woodland, we are able to pre-empt an explosive reaction of bark stripping and ensure effective management methods are put into place.

What we have achieved

During Three Atop’s role in this project as the primary Wildlife and Woodland Management Officer. We have worked alongside local landowners, communities, wildlife managers, volunteers, academic bodies and agencies, and deployed a range of practical, educational, and awareness raising activities to achieve the aims.

Research

Our first port of call was research. We felt it very important to understand squirrel behaviour and found many references to different studies and experts. One piece of research that stood out in particular was that carried out by Charles Dutton. Scoping survey of all the woodland to the north of Exmoor – Charles Dutton & Co (Dorset) Ltd, This research allowed us to take methods and ideology from the studies and put them into practice across our woodlands. Taking into consideration tree species, landscape and connecting woodland.  

We carried out damage surveys to understand the current extent of the damage visible in multiple woodlands. We used trail cameras to monitor the population levels in different areas across the 35km stretch and baited certain areas to observe their behaviours. The evidence allowed us to create culling plans specific to individual woodlands. Essentially, we found the activity and populations were higher in what is referred to as “explosion areas”. The theory being, if culling efforts were carried out here as opposed to traditional line trapping techniques we should be able to reduce the population both quickly and effectively.

We proceeded to implement the culling plans and found the catch rates doubled in certain woodlands in the middle of an explosion area. We continued to use these methods to provide training and understanding of our woodlands to all operatives, landowners, volunteers and the public over the course of the project.

Not only did we look into the behaviours, we investigated different culling methods and our practical research mirrored that of Charles Dutton. No one method is effective on its own. To reduce the population as quickly and effectively a possible we needed to use 3 methods. Fenn traps, live traps and shooting. We found each method has their own pro’s and con’s.

Fenn traps are difficult to set, cause injury when not used correctly, allow a potential for both bye-catch and mis-catch. They need to be checked every 24 hours and the method is quick and fast, very humane.

Live traps have to be checked every 12 hours. Thinking about the logistics here, it takes up a lot of the operatives time. Mice are able to enter the traps, remove bait and leave without setting them off. Squirrels can reach in through the bars and remove bait without having to enter.

Shooting is very effective both roaming and from a bait station however, it takes up a lot of the operatives time and cannot be carried out across public land.  

To try and tackle the con;’s of each method we carried out research with devices such as the remoti. It is a transmitting system that will notify you if a live or fenn trap has been triggered however, due to the connectivity issues across Exmoor we found most explosion areas coincided with signal dead zones. Therefore, the remoti’s rendered themselves ineffective. We also needed to consider the realities of reacting to a trigger. Remoti’s do not replace an operative actively checking traps therefore, you could have an operative check the traps, leave site and be notified of a trigger. This could potentially continue throughout the day therefore, would have to respond moving back and forth to site rather than carrying out daily scheduled checks. This would both cost more and become less effective.

We also used trail cameras to monitor specifically placed bait stations over the space of 4 weeks at a time. This allowed us to take note of the population in that area, the feeding activity and high activity times. This formed the basis of a shooting schedule to ensure an operative had the highest chance of activity throughout the time they were positioned at their post.

The physical act of squirrel control is no easy feat. It takes time, determination and understanding to get it right. It is much more time consuming that one would imagine therefore, carrying out the research was vital to ensure we were using the best approach we could.

Media

With the subject of squirrel control being controversial it was very important to us that the project and it’s aims were publicised. Historically, control methods have been carried for years out under the radar and what we were proposing wasn’t a new revelation. Raising awareness of the behaviours and the detrimental impact the species has on our landscape was vital for people to understand the reasoning behind the control.

We were also very aware of differing opinions on greys/reds across the UK. Further up North and on certain islands there are populations of red, they are struggling and greys are being managed ferociously by volunteers, organisations and people of all backgrounds in a bid to save the native red. The South West hasn’t seen a red squirrel in the wild for around 70 years therefore, the public opinion of greys differs greatly to that up North. Seeing greys in local parks, domestic gardens and public spaces is that of the norm.  

The public launch of The Exmoor Squirrel Project Monday 27th February 2023 attracted quite a lot of media attention. Kerrie spoke with Charlie Taylor from BBC Radio Somerset to discuss the project aims and how we were looking to carry this out on Exmoor with a view to create a flagship to emulate across the UK. As a company or ethos has long been “no waste” therefore, this project was no different for us. Kerrie was asked what we would do with the Grey Squirrels, our response was to either donate them to local animal sanctuaries, given to local restaurants or simply be eaten at home.

The initial interview with the now infamous comment about no wastage and our aims to donate the Grey squirrels to wildlife centres led to BBC Radio 2, Jeremy Vine interviewing Nick. This segment was extremely encouraging with plenty of callers and current restauranteurs who are eating Grey squirrels and have been for years.

This sparked debate however, it seemed to be coming from the consumption of the animal rather than the reasons why this project is so important to reintroduce our native Red squirrel.

We watched the media storm and click bait continue, until the narrative naturally shifted back to our goals.

The Daily Mail was the first newspaper to get in touch. Kerrie gave an in-depth explanation of the project goals and aims. To bring our native red squirrel back to the south west of England.

Restaurants are urged to serve ‘nutritious’ grey squirrel meat | Daily Mail Online

Followed by The Times

The Times view on eating squirrels: Up the Reds

Eating squirrel is good for the planet, say experts (thetimes.co.uk)

ITV News West Country aired a wonderful segment featuring The Exmoor Squirrel project. The interview had a good balance from Wildlife experts as well as capturing the extensive damage to some of our own local woodland.

The media worked just how we wanted it to; people were now asking questions.

Stand Up for Red Squirrels Forest School

Another element to being open, honest and creating starting points for discussion was to ensure the longevity of this information passing down through generations. If we are to launch a project with large scope to expand and create a legacy we need to relay that importance to the next generation. Those ready to take over when we have gone.

We approached local Forest School leader Ema from Wild Wellies to discuss the potential of a collaboration for a themed Forest school programme. Ema is such an inspiration and advocate for young people therefore, it was truly the easiest decision to work alongside her.

Together we created “Stand Up for Red Squirrels Forest School”.  A 3-week programme designed to enhance children’s knowledge of our landscape, why it is so important to understand the symbiosis our woodlands have with our native animals and ourselves but, most importantly, to have fun whilst doing so.

The programme was a huge success seeing a wide demographic attend from homeschool education, families from a town, families from outside the project area, rurally raised children and those from a farming background. The age ranged from 2-10 years old therefore catering for such a large age gap might have been perceived as difficult however, with Ema’s skill and expertise it was achieved. We couldn’t have asked for a greater result.

Harper
Red squirrel
Bert

Session 1:

•              Initial squirrel quiz

•              Leaning about the differences between reds and greys

•              Woodland walking to search for damage and explosion sites

•              Hiding our own larch cones, behaving like squirrels to understand them more

•              Started to build our own red squirrel using hand tools

•              Gained the first page in our squirrel passport

•              Free play

•              Hot chocolate, s’mores and recapping on what we have learnt around a camp fire.

Session 2:

•             Squirrel quiz – understanding behaviours

•             Recap on tree damage with the children identifying it themselves

•             Woodland exploring

•             “Be the squirrel” – a squirrel run obstacle course to see if we can be as agile moving and climbing

•             Continuing our squirrel build

•             Gained the second page in our squirrel passport

•             Free play

•             Build our own pizza wraps, hot chocolate and marshmallows around the fire.

Session 3:

•              Squirrel quiz – recapping all we have learnt

•              Assembling our very own red squirrel

•              Woodland Exploring

•              Bouncing swings

•              Balancing

•              Squirrel memory test – finding the larch cone we hid in our very first session

•              Gained the third and final page of our squirrel passport

•              Free play

•              Chatting about all the things we have learnt, what the children loved the most and how they are teaching others to look out for grey damage in our woodlands

•              S’mores and fire time

•              Received our special Stand up for red squirrels badge

Every single child in attendance engaged, searched woodland for damage, understood the differences between both greys and red, understood the importance of management and took it upon themselves to ensure this information was passed to friends and other family members.  

Volunteers

The positive feedback following the media coverage allowed us to welcome a host of people willing to offer their services to the project. Referring back to our research on the control methods, the act of control is extremely time consuming therefore, for the project to work covering all 35km we required as many hands on deck as possible.

Although the feedback was positive we had to take into consideration that the project area covered public woodland owned by Exmoor National Park. To ensure control was carried out in these areas effectively, we had to be mindful any operative had received the relevant control training alongside a host of paper work inclusive of risk assessments, method statements, identity cards, control timetables and insurances.

We hosted a LANTRA grey squirrel control course at Simonsbath Sawmill with all attendees passing their training with flying colours. We also carried out in house training following our research on the explosion areas to ensure the methods used were the same across all sites. We then began creating timetables and deploying operatives.

We found most volunteers preferred shooting methods over trapping methods however, some sites due to the public nature could not be controlled by shooting. This led to a mere handful of volunteers willing to try trap control methods.

Half way through the project year we had two active volunteers controlling one site in its entirety using Fenn traps. Due to the low population on this site and the amount of time it takes to check traps daily it became quite disheartening. The amount of effort and time they were donating to the project with minimal results left them feeling deflated and understandably decided to use their time elsewhere carrying out shooting control methods on some of the privately owned sites across the project area.  

The use of volunteers on such an ambitious project was vital however, we found that with the public nature, documentation, training and paper work required tended to deter any willing volunteers.

We already knew that squirrel control across pheasant shoots, agricultural land and some domestic dwellings were already being carried out by the landowners. Therefore, in a bid to understand the level of control we contacted as many as possible sharing knowledge, research, methods and assisted some with the set up of a more efficient plan.

Data collation

A large part of the project was innovation and part of this was understanding how we could record culling data effectively. How are we to ensure we are making a difference if we don’t have numbers that quantify our efforts?

The project worked alongside a developer to create an app specifically for recording data. Not only to capture the culls but the bye-catches, mis-catches and gender alongside sightings. The premise of this app would be to electronically record the locations of this information to report upon therefore, assist with our management plans in the future.

First trials were carried out which always throws up a few glitches therefore, we worked alongside the app developer to add and remove some of the features.

The use of the app in field just with anything new, had its’s pro’s and con’s. Signal with the app isn’t a factor, if you were operating in a dead zone you can record the data onsite and upload when in signal.  The use of the app however, added another time element adding around 5 minutes when recording each catch. The app tended to log the user out therefore, if you were logged out upon arrival in a dead zone, you were unable to log in and use until back in an area with signal.

Innovation in any project is vital to trail as many methods as possible.

              Project Handover

We, Three Atop Woodland Services, have reached the end of our time with The Exmoor Squirrel Project and what a journey it has been. We would like to thank both Red Squirrel South West and Exmoor National Park for giving us the opportunity to be a part of such a potentially influential project. That said, the project is still very much active and continues to work towards achieving the project aims.

If you would like any more information on the project, receive updates and understand how you might become involved, please do reach out to either

RSSW – rrswproject@gmail.com

ENPA – bbroadway-mann@exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk;

We are still huge advocates for the aims and ambitions the project promotes and will continue to use the knowledge we have gained throughout our research to continue to support anyone wishing to introduce grey squirrel control in their woodland’s, domestic dwelling or agricultural land.

Red squirrel