Norfolk is nuts about the future of its red squirrels

With their large eyes and bushy tails, and their role in millions of childhoods as the emblem of the road safety Tufty Club, the red squirrel has always had a place in the nation's hearts.

But while the animal was once commonplace in Britain's woodlands, the introduction of the grey squirrel in the 19th century from America brought with it the squirrelpox virus which, while not harmful to the greys, significantly contributed to the decline of its red counterpart.

Once thriving in Thetford Forest, the red squirrel has now all but died out in the area.

While it is unlikely it will ever become a common sight once again in Norfolk, the county is contributing to the re-introduction of the species in the wild, with participation in the East Anglia Red Squirrel Breeding Programme.

Earlier this week, the red squirrel was thrust into the spotlight once again by Prince Charles, who called for it to be made the country's mascot. The prince, patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, had already called for the culling of the larger and more dominant grey squirrel.

'For me the battle for the red squirrel is iconic,' he said. 'It wasn't so long ago that reds were common all over Britain. The grey has to be one of the most disastrous introductions of foreign species there has ever been. I believe the red should become a national mascot.'

According to the Forestry Commission, there are just 140,000 red squirrels left in Britain but more than 2.5 million greys.

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Neal Armour-Chelu, district ecologist for the Forestry Commission, agreed the red squirrel could be an appropriate national emblem, saying: 'The red squirrel is an emblem in our culture in a way grey squirrels aren't.'

He said the animals once thrived in Thetford Forest, but a programme to re-introduce them more than 10 years ago had not been successful.

'They were there naturally when the forest was established. They grew and eventually they were damaging the establishing trees so there was a programme of culling, with shooting and trapping, early in the life of the forest.

'There was a lot of research to look at the interaction between the red and grey squirrels because, initially, they thought it was a competition thing – with the grey squirrels taking all the nuts and leaving the red squirrels to starve. It took them a while to realise it was the disease.'

A re-introduction programme was then implemented in the forest with several breeding pens from which the red squirrels were released when strong enough.

There was a simultaneous trapping programme regarding the grey squirrels in the same parts of the forest, but attempts to control the grey population were unsuccessful and the red squirrels died out.

There are still pockets of reds elsewhere, mostly in the west of England and in Scotland, and studies are ongoing nationally into the use of contraceptives to try to control the grey squirrel.

Both Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, near Fakenham, and Kelling Heath, in north Norfolk, are part of a breeding programme to send red squirrels to Anglesey each year where they are released into the wild as part of a co-ordinated effort to reinforce the declining local population.

A captive breeding area and three red squirrel enclosures have been built at Pensthorpe, with overhead runs allowing more natural behaviour patterns which, it is hoped, will make the transition to the release site in Anglesey less stressful.

Chrissie Kelley, species manager at Pensthorpe, said in 2008 five kittens had been produced, followed by eight the following year and eight in 2010.

'We've got a phenomenal pair here but it's quite complicated and we're learning all the time.

'Mainly it's about getting the husbandry and the feeding right,' she said.

'It's such an interesting animal.'

She added: 'Once you see a red squirrel you realise how important they are. This is their native land and they can live in mixed woodland, although they have a preference for coniferous woodland.

'We're always trying to keep an influence in East Anglia and are forever hopeful we can get them in the forests of East Anglia one day.'

Mark Durrant, park manager of Kelling Heath, , said it had been part of the national scheme since 1999. 'We were one of the first parks in this area that took the opportunity to take part,' he said.

'Kelling Heath accepted the red squirrel as its emblem well before that, though.

'In the years we've been working with them we've bred between 22 and 25 kittens, which have been successfully re-introduced into the wild.'

He added the red squirrel was popular with the public.

'It's just that likeable character, whether they're struggling or burying food for later in the winter when times are hard, they have something people like,' he said.

The park has just received a new female squirrel, which used to be at Easton College near Norwich but after the death of her male partner has switched to the Kelling Heath holiday park, at Weybourne.

It is hoped she will breed with the existing male that has been at Kelling since the autumn.

David Martin, arboricultural warden at the park, said they were pleased the park could provide a new home and a mate so quickly.

'They are quite difficult to breed in captivity and the conditions need to be absolutely perfect before they will,' he added. We are thrilled to have the female and the hope is that the pair will now produce kittens, as young baby squirrels are called.'

Mr Martin said that, without captive breeding programmes, the red squirrel could well become extinct on mainland Britain.

'The reasons for the decline of the red squirrel population in mainland Britain are many and varied – but it is now a sad fact of life that very few people have actually seen a red in their natural habitat.

'Unless we encourage vital schemes like these, the species may be lost to us forever.'

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