A wildlife lover in Alnwick, whose film footage of red squirrels won a competition and is now being seen across the world, fears the native species is at dire risk in the area.
Ernie Gordon, who has been taking pictures and capturing close-up scenes of red squirrels for the past two decades, insists their numbers in Northumberland are only a fraction, even 5%, of what they were five years ago. Angry at reports that “all in the red squirrel garden is rosy”, he’s fighting to raise awareness of their local plight, he says.
“I’m not being alarmist; I’m being a realist,” adds the 80-year-old who first became interested in local wildlife as a child and gives talks to local groups.
“I’ve been around wildlife all my life. You don’t see reds any more, only greys. The numbers have depleted markedly over the last four years.”
A DVD compilation made by Ernie recently won a red squirrel film competition promoted by Newcastle University and conservation group Red Squirrels North East.
“The winning slip has been screened around the world,” he says. “It was a joy for me to win it but since then it’s been a damp squib.
“We’ve got to get public awareness going again.”
Over the years Ernie, who had a career in civil engineering before his retirement in 1993, has accumulated “hundreds and hundreds of hours and miles and miles of film” of red squirrels while filming alone in the countryside - “I’m a lone ranger!” - save for his harmonica which he took to serenade them.
It was a scene of this that delighted competition judges David Green, from Newcastle University; award-winning wildlife photographer Will Nicholls, and well-known naturalist Dr Phil Gates but Ernie says: “That’s no longer possible. They’re gone, dead.”
He thinks the situation faced now by our indigenous reds, at risk from disease-carrying grey squirrels, is very serious and could spread over the border.
“People don’t realise it but the next area is going to be Scotland where the Scottish grey is not a diseased grey but a different species from the English and North American.”
In response to reports that research has led to lower virus rates, Ernie says this is not due to the culling of greys but to the fact that there are now far fewer reds to contaminate.
However, a recent report revealed that red squirrels were being seen at more sites across the North East.
The study of 300 woodlands and gardens in the region has shown that the number of places occupied by reds rose by 7% this year in comparison with spring 2012, while grey squirrel site occupancy reduced by 18% in the same time period.
The monitoring programme, set up by the charity Red Squirrels Northern England, used methods including walked transects through woodlands, observing feeders in gardens and using electronic trail cameras.
Ernie has also just finished a follow-up to The Adventures of Rusty Redcoat, the children’s book about a red squirrel which he wrote in 2006.
It’s all part of his ongoing fight to raise awareness, but he says nobody seems to be listening.
“It’s different when it’s a cheeky meercat, a tiger, elephant or Polar bear. You never see a BBC documentary about red squirrels.”
To view the winning clip, Serenading the Squirrel, from Ernie’s competition entry visit www.rsne.org.uk