Red squirrel expert David Stapleford receives national lifetime achievement award in Pensthorpe

A red squirrel conservationist whose passion was ignited as a wartime evacuee has been praised by Prince Charles as he received a national lifetime achievement award.

David Stapleford received the Red Squirrel Survival Trust's (RSST) top honour this morning at the Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, where he guided a breeding programme to save the mammals from extinction.

He fell in love with the creatures as a Battersea schoolboy in wartime Hampshire when he saw an 'incredibly beautiful' dead squirrel, but did not see a living example until he visited Thetford Forest in 1963.

Describing them as 'my dodos', Mr Stapleford started mating pairs in his back garden.

Despite the effort being 'like breeding pandas', and first couple turning out to be females, he became an expert on their behaviour and feeding habits.

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Norfolk still had pockets of wild reds when he moved to Hempton, near Fakenham, in 1979 to become Fakenham Junior School headteacher, but they had disappeared by the early 1980s.

They have been hit by competition from grey squirrels, introduced to England in the 1800s, and the squirrel pox they carry.

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Now Pensthorpe, which Mr Stapleford visits almost daily, is breeding reds to introduce to grey-free areas such as Anglesea.

He said: 'I think their future prospects are better because there are many people on board now. There's a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, but particularly in rural areas.

'Now we have got to convert the townies because the grey squirrel is so much accepted by the town people because it's a touch of their roots for them, and they don't realise the grey squirrel does so much damage to trees and birds.'

About 100 people gathered at the nature reserve to see broadcaster and self-confessed 'disciple' Robin Page present the 77 year old with a bronze sculpture of his life's love.

Mr Page said: 'We have got people from all over the country who have come here because they find red squirrels wonderful animals, and want to keep them here as part of our British scene.

'I think you have done more than anyone else to raise the profile of the red squirrel because it's an indigenous British species and we must keep it.'

He also gave him a hand-signed letter and a bunch of flowers from the RSST's patron, the Prince of Wales.

He wrote: 'I am acutely aware that without the work carried out by the volunteers, the red squirrel would have a very different future in the UK.

'Your extraordinary determination, devotion and expertise over many years have had a major impact on the fight for survival of the red squirrel, and all I can say is that the lifetime achievement award is richly deserved.'

Pensthorpe owner Deb Jordan said the attraction's 90,000 annual visitors are educated about the species and its fight for survival, thanks to Mr Stapleford.

She said: 'When I was a child I was at school near Thetford and red squirrels were there. I was privileged to see red squirrels in Norfolk as a child.

'Now they have totally died out - nobody gets to see red squirrels any more and understand what an incredibly beautiful creature they are.

'I have never come across someone more unassuming who puts so much into something, and his reward is that he has helped the red squirrel to survive, and allowed education so people understand that when society meddles with the environment, like bringing the grey squirrels, the fallout is awful.

'Against all the odds, David has never given up hope that we will find a vaccine to allow red squirrels to once again be seen in England.'

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