I love animals and have always had a passion for wildlife but red squirrels in particular fascinate me, not least because they are such an iconic native species. Everyone in Britain has heard of the red squirrel - they represent and encapsulate a lot of our island's history and the fact that they are endangered has led many people recently to take a greater interest in the species.
I work at Center Parcs, Whinfell Forest which is one of 18 refuges in England and Wales providing a safe haven for red squirrels. A typical day in the life of a Red Squirrel Ranger usually begins very early and I'm out at first light watching the feeding areas. I'll then spend the rest of the day monitoring the woodland, setting up new safe areas for the squirrels and meeting with guests.
Being able to spend my working day out in the woodlands and forest with nature is a real privilege and a joy. I love that we are doing so much to preserve the species whilst simultaneously helping educate more people, both young and old, on the importance of our actions along the way. At Whinfell Forest, we offer guests the chance to come on a Red Squirrel Adventure where our Rangers lead a walk around the feeding area at the Ranger's Lodge. We provide a map for children encouraging them to look out for signs of the red squirrel and to solve puzzles along the way. At the end, they get their own red squirrel cuddly toy to take home with them - it's a great fun way to share some important messages.
A more challenging aspect of the role is having to ensure grey squirrels aren't entering into the red squirrel colony. As I'm sure you can imagine, it can be quite a challenge to spot one or two squirrels in such a massive woodland - it takes a lot of time and effort. The main reason for us doing this is that grey squirrels have caused the decline of the native red squirrels because they carry a Parapoxvirus called Squirrel Pox. Red squirrels have no defense against the disease and can die within two weeks of contracting it. The grey squirrels are also bigger and stronger than the red squirrels and so will out compete them for food and territory. As a result of this, we need to do all we can to protect the red squirrels. September and October are always very busy with grey squirrels looking for new areas to populate.
Since I began in this role, the red squirrel conservation community has grown significantly across the North of England (where you're most likely to spot them) and there are now around 20 full and part time rangers employed across the country, as well as hundreds of volunteers. The numbers of red squirrels in the UK go up and down depending on many factors. Our Rangers conduct an annual survey to make sure we know how all of our many wildlife species are faring - at the moment, we have around 130 red squirrels.
For those interested in red squirrels I would suggest getting involved in National Red Squirrel Week, which starts on 27 September this year and perhaps becoming a supporter of The Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST) which is national charity ensuring the conservation and protection of the red squirrel in the UK. They establish new colonies across the UK, fund research into how to secure the red squirrel's long-term future and raise awareness of the plight of red squirrels. It is a crucial time for the UK's red squirrel population so every bit of support is appreciated.