Red squirrels: a bushy tale

Indeed, this remains one of the few strongholds in the United Kingdom for red squirrels, mainly because the American grey squirrels are still being kept at bay. It is an offence to bring a grey squirrel into red squirrel territory, with a penalty of two years imprisonment or a £5,000 fine.

Despite their protection here, red squirrels are very much a fragile species. However, their situation would have been far worse but for the dedicated work of Helen Butler from Binstead. Helen’s sterling efforts were recognised in 2013 when she was presented with an MBE by Prince William for her work over more than 20 years of red squirrel conservation on the Island.

She said: “It was hinted that I was being put forward for the award, but I thought they were wasting their time because no one had ever been recognised before for red squirrel conservation.”

Yet her passion for red squirrel preservation began purely by accident. As a youngster she enjoyed horse riding, and realised it was an excellent way to view red squirrel activity as she rode through the countryside.

Then following a repetitive strain injury, she was made redundant from the bank where she worked, went on a course at the IW College in 1991, and subsequently joined the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV).

Helen recalled: “I found myself walking through woods looking for hazelnuts to find the markings on them where little animals had tried to eat them. Small mice nibble at them but a red squirrel will actually split the nut in half. That fascinated me and my interest just grew from there. I set up a group in 1993 that became known as the Wight Squirrel Project; I did an Open University degree and a teaching course, and began doing talks on red squirrels.”

Ironically residents are now among the biggest threat to red squirrels on the Island, even though many people feed them regularly and do their best to protect them. Helen continued: “Unfortunately many red squirrels are road casualties, but at least that tells us that numbers are high – the fewer the squirrels the fewer the road casualties. I went on a course in pathology in 2001 because you can learn a lot from a squirrel’s dead body.

“Cats cause a problem because they can pass on a disease, and then of course some die because of rat poisoning, which is illegal because red squirrels are protected by law.”

Red squirrel by Ian Pratt

Contrary to popular belief red squirrels do not hibernate in the winter, but rely on a stock of hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and seeds to survive. Helen said: “There are certain areas on the Island where red squirrels are more prevalent, including around Alverstone, Quarr, Shanklin Old Village, Fort Victoria, the Garlic Farm and Firestone Copse. Squirrels don’t get tame, but they do get used to people, especially when they are hungry. But when there is plenty of food around, usually in August, they tend to disappear from people’s gardens into the woods to get their natural food, and are rarely seen.”

Although there are thought to be no grey squirrels currently on the Island, Helen revealed that she often receives reports of ‘grey’ sightings simply because there are grey-coloured red ones. She said: “I am happy to be given those sorts of sightings because I do not want to put anyone off reporting the possibility of a grey one here. Grey squirrels are virtually twice the size of reds, and don’t just attack them but also pass on a horrible disease that decimates the species. If reds are lucky they can live until they are six, but many don’t even reach their first birthday.

“Contingency plans are in place in case a grey squirrel is spotted here, and in 2001 a pregnant grey female was found dead near Freshwater which sparked an alert. Thankfully no more were found, even though we scoured that area in West Wight for two years.”

Helen has recently travelled the country with a camcorder making a ‘Red v Grey’ film, which has been distributed to schools and education establishments, highlighting the fact that red squirrel survival is still very much on a knife edge, and how they should be protected.

The Red Squirrel Trust charity was also set up in 2005 to help raise the awareness of reds on the Island, with walks and talks; the facility for members of the public to adopt one, and for youngsters to belong to the Bushy Tail Club.

Helen added: “A lot of my work is about educating people and monitoring red squirrels. Monitoring is vital so if anyone has a red squirrel in their garden, or sees one elsewhere, please let me know, or fill in a questionnaire which is available on website wightsquirrels.co.uk

“I still find red squirrels very interesting, and as long as I feel I can do something to help them I will carry on my work. But if it ever gets to the point where I think I can’t do any more, then that will be the time to look for someone else to do it.”

*Anyone who thinks they have seen a grey squirrel on the Island should contact Helen on (01983) 611003.