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Borough Life Spring 2006: Nuts about red squirrels

Plan will protect our woods

For a borough whose industrial image still lingers, Wigan can lay claim to a rich variety of woodlands.

The plantations at Haigh, Borsdane Wood in Hindley and the remnants of ancient woodland dotted across the Douglas Valley offer a wonderful home to wildlife.

That’s why the council and leisure trust are now drawing up a strategy to protect and improve the quality of our woodlands.

But while they are a source of pleasure for thousands, natural history experts say that many are showing signs of neglect.

Council ecologist Roz Park says: “Many of our woodlands are in poor condition. Without effective management they will deteriorate into woodland of little value both for biodiversity and recreation.”

A woodland steering group will be formed of representatives from local wildlife and countryside agencies.

But Roz stresses: “This is not just about public bodies. We want to show private landowners and the wider community that they have a crucial role to play in preserving this irreplaceable heritage.”

Simply Red: factfile

  • About 160,000 red squirrels remain in Great Britain, most of them in Scotland. An estimated 2.5 million grey squirrels live in Britain.
  • In England grey squirrels outnumber reds by 66:1.
  • Red squirrels do not hibernate over winter.
  • They live in a drey made of twigs, leaves and moss built in a tree.
  • Reds can live to 6 years of age and their young are called kittens.
  • The red squirrel is native to Britain whereas the grey originated in North America.

Seeing red...

red squirrel
NUTS ABOUT WIGAN... one of the red squirrels making the borough its home.

Squirrel Nutkin is alive and living in Wigan! A small colony of rare red squirrels, discovered in privately owned woods in Winstanley, is believed to be the only population in the whole of Greater Manchester.

Now Wigan Council and the Leisure and Culture Trust are drawing up plans to protect the beautiful creatures immortalised by children’s author Beatrix Potter.

The red squirrel – smaller and less adaptable than its grey cousin – is limited to just a handful of locations in England. The north west, with healthy populations at Formby and the Lake District, is one of its last strongholds.

Graham Workman, wildlife manager for Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust, said: “When we talked to the experts they scoffed at the idea of there being any red squirrels in Wigan, but they are now having to eat humble pie.”

Graham and council ecologist Roz Park are working on a new strategy to protect the borough’s woodlands and have identified measures to increase the population of red squirrels.

But why is the red squirrel under threat? Graham explains: “Sadly the main reason is the rapid increase in the number of grey squirrels. The greys carry a virus a bit like the rabbit disease of myxomatosis, which they are actually immune to, but which spreads like wildfire through the red squirrel population.

“Because this small colony in Winstanley is on well-protected private land, they appear to be breeding. By creating feeding stations we hope to tempt them to Orrell Water Park where we can create a refuge for them.”

A bid for funding is already in the pipeline. The council is also planning to have talks with St Helens Council, where another small population is believed to exist, and Bolton Council which is breeding reds in captivity, to try and get a co-ordinated approach.

Graham added: “When I first moved to Haigh more than 20 years ago I would often see red squirrels in the plantations. But as the grey population has expanded the reds have dwindled. In the long term we’d love to reintroduce them to Haigh Country Park.”

He accepts that might be controversial though. Wherever the red thrives it is because the grey population is controlled. That might not be popular, but if we want to see the red squirrel prosper in Wigan, it may be a price we have to pay.

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