Red Squirrels at Hawes – December 2018

Once again time has flown by and it’s over a month since my last entry! I have a few queued up to write and meant to do these through December, however my plans were somewhat derailed by work being completely crazy in the run up to finishing for the Christmas break.

In early December I did manage to get away for the day to Yorkshire for a day photographing Red Squirrels. I’ve always wanted to try taking photographs by a reflection pool – a large but shallow pool of water that allows for wonderful reflections. They can be set up at home, but unfortunately my garden is far too small to set one up here – although that plus a hide would definitely be my dream scenario!

Luckily, dotted around the country are several hides available to hire which already have pools set up. Even more luckily, the one nearest to me in North Yorkshire also happens to be in a woodland which is home to one of my favourite species – Red Squirrels!

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My day in the hide duly booked, I left the house at what seemed like the middle of the night – actually 6 in the morning – to embark on the 2 hour drive over to the meeting point in Hawes. The omens didn’t look too promising for the day ahead – as I drove across the Pennines thick fog came down and as soon as that cleared it was quickly followed by drizzly but persistent rain. All the same, the drive was really enjoyable with the dawn breaking over some beautiful scenery as I made my way through Yorkshire. Even better was the sight of two hunting Barn Owls, a Little Owl and a Stoat running across the road!

The weather brightened as I met up with Paul who owns the site, and we made our way over to the hides. They are ideally located just a few minutes drive outside Hawes, and within no time I was settled into the reflection pool hide.

Before long the squirrels arrived – but unfortunately so did the rain, meaning that I was only able to get a couple of shots with reflections as there was just too much disturbance on the top of the water.

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It continued to rain torrentially for much of the rest of the day. Even though I wasn’t able to take the shots I went for, I love some of the photos that I took on the day. They certainly reflect the conditions and tell a story.

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Some of the squirrels looked seriously bedraggled at points.

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And I was treated to a couple of instances of something that I never thought I’d see – swimming squirrels! On several occasions squirrels managed to knock hazelnuts into the pool and went chasing into the water to retrieve them. They had no hesitation in chasing right into the water – until roughly halfway across the pool where they seemed to lose their nerve and beat a hasty retreat back to shore. At which point they had to wait until the nut floated back to the side of the pool before finally claiming their prize!

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There were usually 4 or 5 squirrels around the hide at any one time and they came so close – even running across the front of the hide on several occasions and stopping to have a closer look at me!

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As well as the squirrels, a variety of woodland birds were also frequent visitors to the pool giving me the chance to photograph them too.

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As the afternoon rolled on and the light started to drop, sadly it was time to leave. A sign of just how much it had rained came when we passed what had been a small stream in the morning, which was now a raging torrent as water flowed down from the hills. All the same, I’d had a brilliant time and will definitely be visiting the hides again in pursuit of some better weather and those ever elusive reflection shots!

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The hide I used can be booked here through Paul Fowlie Photography.

Formby Red Squirrels

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.