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england’s first reintroduction of the iconic red squirrel

return of the reds

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The Cornwall Red Squirrel Project

The Cornwall Red Squirrel Project was founded in 2009, with the aim to re-introduce Britain’s native red squirrel to Cornwall

Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) were once common across the UK with an estimated peak population in excess of 3.5 million individuals. Unfortunately, the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was introduced to the UK from America as an ornamental species in 1876. The spread of the grey squirrel was rapid, and in 36 years the species had reached Cornwall.

The grey squirrel’s ability to spread so quickly across the UK resulted in a cataclysmic decline of native red squirrel numbers as the two species are fundamentally unable to coexist. Today the UK red squirrel population sits at approximately 120,000, only around 15,000 of these being in England. The last recorded sighting of a red squirrel in Cornwall was in 1984. Without the work being done by red squirrel conservation groups and potential reintroduction projects it is estimated that the red squirrel would be extinct on the UK mainland within 20 years.

 

Two areas initially proposed for the red squirrel reintroduction. Funding and resources has meant that the project has had to prioritise the primary reintroduction site for now. The CRSP initial release site is set to be on the Lizard Peninsula, due to its isolated nature. Thankfully, the Helford Estuary runs along the edge of the Lizard, providing a natural barrier against grey squirrels.

 

The Cornwall Red Squirrel Project’s work on the ground began in 2011, when rangers began securing a habitat ahead of a reintroduction. Since then the team has grown to accommodate three full time rangers employed by the project.

Cornwall is ideally suited to this project because of its relative isolation from the mainland, and the presence of wooded valleys and mixed woodland which offer an extremely suitable red squirrel habitat. The project will start with a primary reintroduction on The Lizard, with the hope that a secondary release site and habitat expansion being secured in West Penwith. These sites were identified in a habitat survey by Dr Craig Shuttleworth of the RSST as being viable for re-introduction. They are particularly ideal as these two areas are surrounded by sea on three sides making them more easily defended against re-population by grey squirrels.  

The project have been working to secure a healthy population of red squirrels ahead of the reintroduction, and the project now have four red squirrels situated within secure enclosures on the Lizard. These squirrels are being monitored and will hopefully successfully breed in early 2019. This will be the first step in producing a population of healthy red squirrels destined to live wild on the Lizard.

 
 
without human intervention it is estimated that the red squirrel would be extinct on the UK mainland within 20 years
— Natasha Collings