Fighting Back

Airgun enthusiast and BASC member, Jason Braithwaite, reports on an exciting and successful red squirrel conservation project taking place in the woodlands of Western Lakeland.

Over the last 20 years, the glorious woodlands of Western Lakeland have been host to an unwelcome invasion. You will not see or be aware of it as you visit or pass through this stunning part of the country, but its impact is known to those of us who live here and is being felt in the local ecology.

Struggles of the red squirrel

Pockets of woodland in this region have traditionally been home to the native and often elusive red squirrel. However, this species is under serious threat in this area and elsewhere. While grey squirrels have been a common sight for many years in our inner cities, they now appear in large numbers all over the country.

In some local woodland regions, the red squirrel appear to have left completely. In others, they have a fragile and diminished presence. And if grey squirrels become too abundant, the reds will simply stop breeding altogether, vacate the area, or simply die out. 

There has also been increased sightings of red squirrels with the deadly parapox virus in the region. This lethal problem requires a serious, professional, and well-planned red squirrel conservation solution. It is time for action!

Wildlife trail cameras tell the airgunner what is feeding and when 24hrs a day so an ambush can be planned.

The project's humble beginnings

The West-Lakes Squirrel Initiative (WLSI) started in 2011. Its founding members Peter Armstrong and Steve Tyson were contacted by a landowner concerned that grey squirrels had become established in woodland occupied by indigenous red squirrels. By December 2013, the WLSI had started and were registered as a not for profit company.

Currently there are 17 active volunteers directly involved in culling activities and a few additional non-shooting supportive members who help more generally. These monitor and top up squirrel feeders and report sightings of both types of squirrel. 

This particular red squirrel conservation project currently oversees more than 5,000 acres of woodland for around 100 landowners across the western Lake District. Those range from private gardens to corporate properties and large country estates. 

All active members of WLSI are experienced airgun enthusiasts. The modern precision air rifle is the chosen method for grey squirrel control. These air rifles are used in conjunction with an optimised feeder-based methodology.

A feeder and trail camera configuration set up in woodland.

A 21st century approach to conservation: data-driven airgunning

My own effective squirrel feeder mix containing seeds, nuts and the occasional monkey nut.

Walking through the woods randomly looking for grey squirrels is not an optimal strategy for any serious red squirrel conservation project. The sheer scale of the WLSI project requires a 21st century approach combining research, observation, and data-gathering technology.

Every tool is carefully considered – from the feed mix and feeders’ design, to the use of Passive Infra-Red (PIR) enabled trail cameras and air rifles. 

Using the feeders

For the feeders, an effective squirrel mix can include nuts and seeds. Adding maize is a good indicator of squirrel species as reds don’t generally eat it. 

This can be complemented further by a scent attractant. It helps establish the feeder in that area, drawing the squirrels in.

My own additional twist on this squirrel mix is to occasionally add monkey nuts. The squirrel will often pause to nibble open the outer casing to get at the inner peanut. They tend to stay reasonably still when doing this, providing an ideal opportunity for an humane head shot.

Feeders are placed approximately 5ft from the ground. They are fixed to tree trunks which also act as safe backstops – something which must always be considered. The strategy here is to have feeders in different sections of the woodland and monitor the activity on them. 

Cameras help track squirrels' movement

To optimise the method further, the feeder will be coupled with a trail camera to capture all visits.

The use of trail cams is something of a game-changer for feeder-based approaches. Grey squirrels are creatures of habit and it is now straightforward to establish their presence and feeding times while minimising the demands upon the time of the volunteer.

Trail cams will reveal which squirrel species are present and when they like to feed. Once the data from the trail cams have been consulted and grey squirrel activity noted at a given feeder, it’s ambush time!

The trick now is to get out into the woods before the squirrels come to feed. Then it’s all about setting up at a suitable distance, in a safe position and angle. Good concealment it key.

Shooting seats and shooting sticks are very helpful. It is important to be comfortable while waiting for the grey squirrels to come and feed. With the cyclical behavioural patterns of the quarry now known, the planned ambush is fully informed.

Recordings help inform

Detailed records are constantly maintained on the location and numbers of squirrels seen, both grey and red.

Numbers of culled greys are also noted, providing a month-by-month measure of efficacy for the methods used.

By adopting this optimised and evidenced-based feeder approach, WLSI have culled thousands of grey squirrels. They continue to document red squirrel sightings in the woodlands of the western Lake District too.

The group have clear evidence of red squirrels returning to woodland areas after being absent for a decade or more.

Data on red squirrel sightings and culled greys from the WLSI archive.

Volunteers play key role

What is particularly admirable to note is that every member of this red squirrel conservation project is an unpaid volunteer taking pride in their role in protecting the red squirrel. 

Early mornings, late evenings and weekends are all dedicated to the ongoing demands of ensuring the red squirrel has more than a fighting chance in this stunning part of our countryside. The members in the group joke that their wives and partners have become ‘squirrel widows’ to some extent. 

From its humble beginnings as a couple of hobby pest controllers trying to save one piece of woodland from grey squirrels, the WLSI now cover one of the largest areas of woodland of any squirrel initiative in the county. The group has become the ‘go-to’ organisation for landowners in the area wanting to benefit from its expertise and professionalism. 

The project is an excellent example of the crucial relationship between shooting and conservation, and what can be done when landowners and conservation enthusiasts work together towards a common goal.

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