In order for reds to come, greys have to go – with a little bit of help from the red squirrel rangers, as Richard Saunders finds out
Meet Ian Hampton. He spends just about all day, every day stalking the woods of The Lizard in Cornwall, air rifle in hand, hunting grey squirrels. And the fewer he sees, the happier he is.
While a blank day would be a disappointment for most of us, nothing makes 45-year old Ian feel better than failing to spot a single squirrel and finding his feed stations still full of maize – because it means he’s doing his job, and doing it well. He’s one of the squirrel rangers at The Cornwall Red Squirrel Project (CRSP).
The privately-funded project was formed in 2009. Unlike some other red squirrel projects, which protect existing red squirrel populations, the CRSP has the more ambitious aim of reintroducing Britain’s native squirrel to the peninsula – the most southerly point in the UK, covering roughly 26 square miles. Before that dream can be realised, though, the grey squirrels – the non-native species brought to Britain by our Victorian forefathers in 1876 – simply have to go. That’s where Ian and his Brocock Bantam come in.
“It’s an unfortunate biological fact that grey squirrels and red squirrels simply cannot co-exist,” he explains, as we take a breather from walking through one of his woodland beats. “The biggest threat, of course, is the pox they carry, which is harmless to greys, but fatal to reds. But the damage greys cause to the woodland ecology goes much deeper than that.”
Ian has been working for the CRSP for nearly three years. His role as part of a three-man ranger team is critical to the entire project. “We’ll never completely eradicate grey squirrels,” he says. “But significantly reducing their numbers improves the diversity of woodland wildlife and will make
it harder for the pox to spread to the red squirrels once they are reintroduced.”
Air rifles play an essential role – a fact recognised and supported by Brocock, which provides the CRSP with air rifles, scopes and rangefinders. Ian and his team currently use two 30ft-lb FAC-rated rifles – a Bantam and a Compatto in .22 calibre – and a sub-12ft-lb Compatto in .177. All of them are paired with MTC Viper Pro scopes.
“My Bantam has a hard life with plenty of knocks and scrapes to show for it, but it always delivers the goods,” says Ian, patting the stock of his air rifle. “The extra power of the FAC version helps of course, but you still have to put the pellet in the right place to kill humanely. I only take head shots and rarely, if ever, shoot at more than 30 yards.”
For many professional pest controllers, an airgun is simply a tool. That’s not true of Ian who, as a 10-year-old, was taught to shoot by his grandfather and has been an enthusiastic airgun shooter ever since.
When I met him, he was eagerly awaiting the arrival of his new rifle: a 40ft-lb Bantam Sniper HR in .25 calibre donated by Brocock. For him, the fact that the latest crop of Brocock rifles are regulated is a huge step forward.
“After years of hard work there are fewer grey squirrels to shoot. As a result, when an opportunity comes along it’s more important than ever before that I seize it. A miss could mean I won’t get another chance at the same squirrel for weeks, if ever,” he says.
Thanks to its Huma regulator, the new Brocock Bantam Sniper HR is more consistent across the fill pressure range and eliminates accuracy issues associated with coming off the sweet spot. This fact is not lost on Ian, especially as he acknowledges that opting for higher power means compromising on the number of available shots per fill.
Although air rifles are vital in enabling the rangers to do their work, they are used in conjunction with box traps designed by one of the rangers to kill only grey squirrels and do so humanely and instantly. “As long as they are checked daily, the traps work 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, whereas I can only spend so many hours a day hunting with my air rifle,” says Ian. “Trapping or shooting alone would not be effective. We’re successful because we use the two tactics in parallel.”
The two-pronged approach has enabled Ian and his colleagues to account for around 4,000 grey squirrels to date. In the early days Ian would trap and shoot around 40 a week. Today, as a result of his success, that number is closer to six a week.
The rangers report the GPS location, weight, length and sex of each squirrel they kill, along with data such as whether female squirrels are pregnant or lactating. The information is analysed by The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust so that an accurate picture of the size and make-up
of the remaining grey squirrel population can be maintained.
I spent an entire day with Ian as he walked the woods he manages, checking his feeders and network of traps that have to be inspected every day. Inevitably, like any airgun hunter, I spent most of the time looking at the trees, expecting to see a squirrel at any moment – but without success. While I was a little disappointed, Ian was delighted. “I must be doing something right,” he says with a grin as we peer into yet another feeder with a healthy level of grain still in it. Now I understand why he is so happy when he goes all day without taking a single shot.
As we patrol the woods, it becomes apparent that Ian’s traps and feeders, which he baits with maize, are often set up in pairs. He explains that his preference is to locate his traps in semi-covered positions within air rifle range of feeders and at a height that enables him to use them as a shooting rest. He has designed each feeder with a metal backstop, and places them with plenty of back cover to reduce the potential harm caused by ricochets or missed shots.
While the main purpose of the feeders and traps is of course to eliminate squirrels, they also play an important role in monitoring squirrel activity. “I can tell if a feeder has been visited by a squirrel as they remove the nutritious kernel with almost surgical precision and leave the rest of the grain, whereas birds will eat the whole lot,” he explains to me.
I’ve come across many airgun hunters whose hostility towards their quarry is as fanatical as it is unfathomable, and often disturbing. Nothing could be further from the truth with Ian. Behind the softly-spoken exterior is a compassionate countryman who has nothing but respect for his quarry and an utter commitment to controlling them humanely.
“I’d love to find a way to control greys without killing them,” he says. “But the reality is that they are invasive and have to be controlled if our own native species is to have a chance of surviving. CRSP’s motives are purely ecological – there’s no financial benefit in culling squirrels, unlike badgers and foxes, and most people understand what we are doing as a result.”
In reality, Ian’s desire to see red squirrels back in Cornwall – the last recorded sighting was in 1984 – is not his only motive for reducing the grey squirrel population.
“Many people don’t realise the wider damage they have on the woodland ecology,” he says. “In addition to the pox threat, grey squirrels dig up bulbs and damage trees by stripping the bark. And they are ruthless predators of songbird eggs and chicks. I used to take my iPod with me when I was staking out a feeder because there was nothing to listen to. Today, with fewer squirrels, the woods are alive with birdsong again.”
He goes on to explain that due to their ability to tolerate high levels of tannins, grey squirrels are also able to eat seeds, berries and nuts before they are ripe – therefore denying important food sources to other woodland animals.
“Take dormice, for example,” he says. “They feed on hazelnuts, but they don’t get a look-in with so many squirrels around. I’m certain the decline in the number of dormice is related to the increase in squirrels and it will be interesting see if their numbers grow.” That bigger picture thinking is typical of the CRSP. Sir Ferrers Vyvyan is a trustee of the project. The 1,000 acre Trelowarren Estate, which has been in his family since the 15th century, plays a pivotal role, and will be the release site for the first red squirrels.
“We’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this point,” he says. “The timing of this project, while people like me can recall seeing red squirrels in the wild, is vital. Future generations won’t have that same connection and it will be less important to them. Thanks to the work of Ian and the other rangers, we are close to our goal of being able to release reds into the wild.”
So close in fact, that the CRSP is now in discussion with organisations such as the Welsh Mountain Zoo, Jersey Zoo and nearby Paradise Park to obtain a suitable breeding stock of red squirrels, which will be kept in an enclosure on the Trelowarren Estate until they are ready for release.
Key to that decision is analysis of the data Ian and the rangers provide to the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. In particular, the CRSP has, for the last two years, submitted samples of squirrels so the pox infection rate can be assessed. From near 100 per cent in the first year, the rate declined to 80 per cent 12 months later. The CRSP is awaiting the results of this year’s data and has high hopes the infection rate will tumble still further.
“Now we are on the cusp of reintroducing red squirrels to Cornwall for the first time in 34 years, the role of our rangers is more important than ever,” Sir Ferrers explains. “We simply cannot afford to be complacent and allow grey squirrels to re-establish themselves and potentially undo everything we have achieved.”
In fact, the CRSP is considering plans to recruit airgunners to help in the ongoing monitoring and control of grey squirrels. Ian has developed a course that will help train people on grey squirrel control and broader airgun shooting skills. His aim is for the course to be certified and accredited, and if successful, he sees it providing airgunners with the sort of expertise and credibility that will help them be more successful in securing their own permissions.
“Once we are up and running, I believe we can work with airgunners to set up a programme whereby, having completed our training course and achieved certification, they can work with our rangers to manage traps and feeders to monitor for evidence of grey squirrels and deal with them accordingly. That will be particularly crucial in the buffer zone in the northern part of The Lizard,” says Sir Ferrers. “Without doubt, the airgunning community could be a vital part of the long-term success of the project.”
CRSP’s desire to collaborate includes early discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for the use of species-specific immuno-contraceptives to reduce the potential for grey squirrels to breed.
In addition, the CRSP is hoping to team up with bodies such as the University of Exeter to research the impact of grey squirrels on songbird and dormouse populations, building on previous studies by the British Trust for Ornithology and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Those studies showed that high populations of grey squirrels corresponded with low levels of songbird fledgling success.
“A huge part of our motivation is to prove that it is possible to reintroduce red squirrels into areas of the mainland by documenting the lessons and techniques we learn along the way.”
To find out more about The Cornwall Red Squirrel Project, including how to join, visit www.cornwallredsquirrels.co.uk.