A UNITED front was launched yesterday in the biggest push yet to ensure red squirrels survive in the North of England.
Red Squirrels North England (RSNE) will be a five-year project backed by a total of more than £3m in funding.
Work on preparing the new strategy and approach has been going on for the last six months by a partnership of bodies including Natural England, the Forestry Commission, The Wildlife Trusts and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, a charity set up two years ago and whose patron is Prince Charles.
RSNE will seek to work with voluntary community red squirrel groups and others with an interest in saving the reds.
“We are really excited about this. The voluntary groups are going to work very closely with the new project in what we hope will be a very co-ordinated and unified approach to saving our red squirrels,” said Sally Hardy, chairman of Ponteland Red Squirrels.
“It’s a last ditch hope for the reds and we think it is a real step in the right direction.” Red Squirrel Survival Trust chairman Miles Barne said: “While there has been a range of excellent initiatives in the past, there has never been a red squirrel conservation project across northern England on this scale before.
“Our joined-up approach offers greater scope to ensure effective allocation of resources while working closely with the many fantastic local red squirrel groups in the region. Their expertise and dedication will be crucial to the success of the project.
“With everyone working together, I’m confident we can save northern England’s reds.”
The new body stems from a Government-funded, independent review last year of red squirrel conservation work.
It advocated the creation of a strong partnership and co-ordinated approach, with better monitoring and collection of data, which RSNE aims to deliver.
Previously red squirrel conservation had been carried out by individual projects such as Red Alert, Save Our Squirrels based at Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Lord Redesdale’s Red Squirrel Protection Partnership which concentrated on grey squirrel control in Northumberland.
The new project will be based around the 17 red squirrel forest strongholds in northern England, and will also provide funding for grey squirrel monitoring and control across the wider landscape.
The project aims to maintain and where possible increase the size of red squirrel populations within the strongholds through targeted and sustained killing of grey squirrels.
“We have a great opportunity here. This will be a really comprehensive partnership to deliver red squirrel conservation on a landscape scale,” said RSNE interim project manager Dr Craig Shuttleworth.
“The conservation of reds is underpinned by keeping greys out and removing greys from where reds live.”
RSNE will also be working with scientific experts in areas such as woodland management, squirrel ecology and viral research and the development of a vaccine for reds against the grey-carried squirrel pox, Sally Hardy said: “We aren’t going to save the reds by talks and red squirrel walks, although these sort of activities are important for raising awareness.
“Everyone has now realised that there is only one way to save the reds and that is by co-ordinated grey control.”
It is estimated that there are around 1,500 volunteers already involved in red squirrel conservation.
Tony Laws, area manager for Natural England in the North East, said: “Natural England welcomes the launch of Red Squirrels North England and is helping to fund the project because we recognise the urgency and importance of supporting this work.
“The red squirrel is a priority species for conservation in the UK and a symbol of wildlife conservation for northern England.”