As it’s Red Squirrel Awareness Week, it struck me that now would be a very appropriate time to talk about one of my favourite places to visit further afield, especially during the Autumn and Winter months – National Trust Formby. It’s become such a favourite place to visit that at least one or two mornings spent in the reserve watching and photographing the resident Red Squirrels has now become a firm tradition over the Christmas and New Year holidays!
The reserve consists of pine woods leading out onto the beach. It’s a very special place because it’s one of the few spots in the North West where Red Squirrels can still be found. The Red Squirrel is the UK’s only native Squirrel species. They were widespread across most of the country until the 1870’s – when the non-native Grey Squirrel was introduced from America. Quickly, the larger Grey Squirrel started to out-compete the Red Squirrel for both food and habitat. And with them, they brought the Squirrelpox Virus, which they have developed immunity to but which is lethal to Red Squirrels.
Red Squirrels are very susceptible to environmental changes – if they feel stressed, they will not breed. And of course, they struggled too due to the ever present reduction of available territory as woodlands are lost to development. These factors combined mean that Red Squirrel numbers in the UK have fallen from an estimated 3.5 million at their peak, to just 160,000 individuals now – with as few of 15,000 of these being in England.
So Formby’s Red Squirrels are incredibly precious. In 2007 tragedy struck the reserve when there was a bad outbreak of Squirrelpox immediately followed by an unseasonably harsh Winter – the National Trust estimated that these two events combined led to the loss of 85% of the Red Squirrel population at Formby. It’s recovering now, and although numbers are still not back to their pre-Squirrelpox numbers there are still plenty to see, especially if you visit the reserve at the right time of day. There is still the odd isolated case of Squirrelpox on the reserve, and for that reason Grey Squirrels are strictly controlled in and around the reserve.
The squirrels are most active in the early mornings and evenings, so during the Winter months when I visit the most often I time my visit to arrive when the reserve opens. Not only does this give you a greater chance at getting a parking space (the reserve is incredibly popular and the car park is often full by mid-morning) but it also coincides nicely with the rangers feeding the squirrels, so there are always lots out and about seeking breakfast. During the middle of the day the squirrels retreat into the trees and their dreys – if you want to see them there’s no chance of a lie in, the earlier really is the better.
There’s a network of paths around the reserve, with the body of the woodlands behind fencing to allow the squirrels to remain undisturbed by people and dogs. Squirrels being squirrels though they pay no mind to the fences and frequently venture close to or onto the paths – a zoo-like experience this is not. Being woodland the light levels are quite low, but on a crisp and bright Winter’s day the light is good enough for photography.
In Winter you’d be forgiven for thinking that Red Squirrels have been misnamed – they grow a thick Winter coat and the colour of this can vary enormously, from red to grey and every shade in between. They also grow their distinctive ear tufts which moult during the Summer and grow back during the Winter.
The squirrels do look strikingly different in the Summer, they’ve lost their ear tufts and their lighter Summer coats are a really vivid shade of orange. I’ve found there are fewer to be seen during the Summer months though, as with the longer days by the time the reserve opens they’ve mostly retreated into the trees.
After a couple of hours exploring the reserve I tend to leave in late-morning, as the reserve gets busier and the squirrels head for the treetops. It really is a wonderful place to visit.