Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Paintings for Red Squirrel Week

It's Red Squirrel Week this week and I'm doing my bit to raise awareness by posting my latest collection of paintings of red squirrels here.

I painted this one after a visit to Formby, in Merseyside, where the National Trust protects an isolated colony of reds. Red squirrels are in serious trouble. The latest estimated population is just 120,000 , of which 75% or more are in Scotland. The main problems are disease, specifically squirrel pox, the loss and fragmentation of their woodland habitat, and competition from the more robust grey squirrel.
There are only a handful of refuges left for red squirrels in the UK, of which Formby is one.

Earlier this year I visited another, in Angelsey, where conservationists have concentrated on controlling the red squirrel's biggest competitors; greys. Whilst there, I met Dr Craig Shuttleworth of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales who gave me a leaflet about red squirrels with a map of Welsh populations and their distribution that dated back to 2000. The paper showed that this endangered species remain in just a few small pockets across the region and that these pockets have remained unchanged for 15 years. That is apart from on the Island of Anglesey, where there are more than 500 red squirrels –representing the largest population in Wales. This boom is despite the fact that red squirrels were nearly extinct on Anglesey in 1997.

The success is directly due to a focus on the systematic eradication of grey squirrels. Grey squirrels are a major factor in the decline of our native squirrel due to the fact that they carry the disease, squirrel pox, which is lethal to red squirrels. Grey squirrels that dare to cross the bridge off the mainland are relentlessly trapped. The island has now become such a safe haven for the reds that recently these indigenous species have begun crossing onto the mainland. In response the Trust has also begun to control populations of greys on the mainland and is successfully encouraging this steady spread of the red squirrel population. At the same time the Trust concentrates on breeding red squirrels in captivity for release and in the enhancement of woodland habitats. 

Here in Yorkshire, red squirrels are tragically sparse. However earlier this year, whilst the snow was still on the ground, I met up with wildlife photographer Simon Phillpots to see a thriving colony in the Dales.  Simon is passionate about red squirrel conservation and has spent years getting to know his local population. We set off from Hawes and before long were driving down a track into a hidden valley with larch and fir plantations on one side of the track. It was clear the woodland had also been recently planted with more native species. The landscape was breathtaking. There was a snow covering on all the branches and the tops of the walls were coated in white.

We parked and then headed down a path on foot to Simon’s hide. I love a fresh covering of snow because it shows signs of wildlife so clearly. Roe deer slots and rabbit tracks criss-crossed the path. Then, as we got closer to the hide, the star-shaped prints of red squirrel appeared. Beside the hide were bins full of squirrel and bird feed and as Simon opened the hatches I spotted a welcoming committee. Several squirrels had heard our approach and were sitting there waiting to be fed.

This was very different to most of my wildlife watching experiences. Usually keeping quiet and ‘stealth-like’ is essential. But the more noise we made the more the woodland came alive with squirrels and birds. We decided to photograph the squirrels without using the hide. The hide had been necessary when Simon first began to photograph these squirrels several years ago. But we could now walk amongst them.

The squirrels followed when Simon called them and would even go to a spot to look for hazelnuts if Simon pointed to it – it was like being with the pied piper of squirrels. It was incredible to watch as they ran along dry stone walls, across fallen trees and perched on stumps looking for the hazelnuts Simon had put out for them. Their mouths opened to fit in a hazelnut perfectly and they could crack into their hard shells in seconds to get at the tasty kernel inside. Meanwhile some nuts were stashed away for another day.

Each character was different. Some had a playful nature and were bolder and more mischievous than others. Among them one character stood out. This one had a slightly kinked tail and, Simon explained, was the cheekiest. He had named this one Floppy. Squirrels do not hibernate but grow thick winter coats and prominent ear tufts.

Watching these squirrels was so engaging. It would be tragic if we lost these fun creatures. And yet a report published this month by the World Wildlife Fund suggests that the world has already lost 52% of its animals. This Christmas I hope to do what I can to raise awareness for Britain's endangered species by staging a major exhibition at my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, featuring my paintings of threatened UK species with advice on how to help them. 

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