STUDENTS and staff at a rural college campus are playing their part in the battle to save England’s endangered red squirrel population.
Learners and staff on the Northumberland College site at Kirkley Hall near Ponteland have launched a monitoring and feeding programme in a bid to save the threatened animals from extinction.
Red squirrels are not new to the woodland surrounding the campus, but had not been seen for a number of years.
Students and staff set up special monitoring cameras and discovered at least five living there.
They have since teamed up with conservation action groups Ponteland Red Squirrels and Red Squirrels Northern England to set up a monitoring programme, with the aim of increasing the local population of reds.
Students and staff from Kirkley Hall’s animal management centre and zoo are giving up their time to work as volunteers on the project, and have a number of fundraising activities planned to buy food and feeders for the squirrels.
The Ponteland Red Squirrels group revealed last week that more than 200 grey squirrels were caught in the area in 2012, and said the local population of threatened reds has been recovering.
On Ponteland golf course, a former stronghold where no reds had been sighted for almost the full past year, three have been reported recently.
Yesterday Michael Stephenson, one of the keepers at Kirkley Hall Zoo who is leading the red squirrels programme, said: “I’m really pleased to be part of this important project. Red squirrels are such beautiful animals, and we want to do whatever we can to help protect them.”
Sally Hardy, of the Ponteland Red Squirrels group, said: “We’re really pleased the college students and staff are volunteering for this monitoring programme. Projects such as this help us to save the species in Northumberland, and we will be working closely to support the volunteers.”
The college plans to create an education trail focusing on the red squirrels along the campus’s woodland walk, which is open to the public. It will also encourage visitors to report any sightings of red or grey squirrels on the Red Squirrels Northern England website at www.rsne.org.uk. Katy Cook, from Red Squirrels Northern England, said monitoring projects such as the one at Kirkley Hall were important.
“We have staff and volunteers carrying out the same sort of surveys in more than 300 locations, twice a year, so that we can understand the changes in distribution of red and grey squirrels right across the north of England. This helps up to plan our work and see if we are being effective.”
Red squirrels, which are native to the UK, have almost been eradicated since the introduction of the American grey squirrel in the 19th Century.
Northumberland is one of their last bastions in England.