CONSERVATIONISTS will lead a hunt for the red squirrel next week in one of the animal's surviving enclaves in West Wales.
The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales is celebrating Red Squirrel Week, which starts on September 30, by offering wildlife lovers the chance to see the native squirrel in its natural habitat.
The trust will lead an expedition in the upper Cothi Valley of Carmarthenshire on September 30, in an area where conservationists are working hard to protect the animal and increase numbers.
"They're occasionally seen at the picnic site on the Sugar Loaf, near Llandovery," said expedition organiser Denys Smith. "Otherwise, they only exist in small colonies in forests such as Brechfa, the Upper Tywi and Crychan. Conservationists are slowly helping the numbers to increase but it's not easy."
The problem, as most people know, is the North American grey squirrel. This was introduced from America to England in 1876 and spread rapidly after escaping from captivity.
It now outnumbers the native red by 66 to one and has wiped out the red from vast areas of mainland Britain.
The red survives in isolated populations on Brownsea Island in Dorset, the Isle of Wight, and in Thetford Forest, Norfolk, and in parts of Cumbria, Durham, Northumberland and North Lancashire.
Red squirrels are still common in parts of the Scottish Highlands and Ireland and, of the total UK population of about 161,000, the greatest concentration of the 10,000 survivors in Wales is on Anglesey.
"The reds can only survive in havens where the grey can't penetrate," said Mr Smith. "They are rarely seen across most of Wales, while the grey carry on their destructive habits of stripping the bark from trees and killing them."
Mr Smith said reds were still reasonably plentiful in the 1950s. But the greys carry the Paravox virus, which does them no harm but kills the reds within four days.
The grey can also be almost twice as heavy as the red and has been found to eat 10 times as much.
"The greys will eat anything, leaving few hazelnuts for the red, which also like beech mast and the seeds of pine cones," he said.
"Unfortunately, although large areas of Wales were planted with conifers, they were not pines, so the red squirrel could find no comfort there."
The devastation caused by the greys has led to calls for a targeted programme of culling.
"The main aim is usually to cut down the numbers of greys so that the reds have more chance to survive," said Mr Smith.
"It was thought immuno-contraception might be the answer but the delivery mechanism for the treatment has so far proved unsatisfactory.
"So trapping seems to be the answer, using traps that can only be sprung when the heavier animal enters, after which it can be humanely destroyed. The weight difference can also be employed with a food-aid system, where only the lighter red can safely cross a bridge to access the food."
This is one of the systems in use in Carmarthenshire that will be demonstrated next week.
All are welcome to join the expedition by meeting at Bwlch-y-Rhiw, three miles north-east of Cwrt-y-Cadno - map reference SN 720405 - where there will be a sign to help visitors. A packed lunch is advisable.
Further details from Denys Smith on 01558 822152.
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