East Anglia: Farm launches red squirrel conservation bid

AN East Anglian farm dedicated to countryside conservation has launched a small but determined attempt to help save the iconic red squirrel from extinction.

The Mayfields smallholding, owned by the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), is caring for a pair of red squirrels in the hope they will breed healthy young for release back into the wild.

Under guidance of expert David Stapleford, co-founder of the East Anglian Breeding Programme, the CRT has now officially opened two purpose-built enclosures on the farm, at Themelthorpe, near Reepham.

The �27,000 project follows the success of the captive breeding programme at Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, where Mr Stapleford is chief adviser.

It is hoped Wigeon, a female from Pensthorpe, and Warren, a male from the breeding programme at nearby Whitwell Hall, will produce two to six kittens in around April and possibly breed for a second time later this year.

“We are extremely excited,” said CRT chairman Robin Page. “Red squirrels need all the help they can get and we hope to have a successful breeding population at Mayfields.

“The enclosures are built around oak trees and it is almost like they are living in a hedgerow – they have penthouse accommodation in the countryside.

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“The plight of the red squirrel is a British tragedy as our once common indigenous squirrel has been ousted by the more aggressive, alien grey.

“In the long term, we would like to breed red squirrels for release back into the wild in East Anglia, but before we can do that we have to have some areas free of the grey squirrel.

“I would like to persuade the Forestry Commission to eventually clear Thetford Forest of grey squirrels, so red squirrels can be reintroduced to Norfolk.

“There are several reintroduction schemes going on and many go to Anglesey, Tresco on the Isles of Scilly, and Cornwall. They are such an important and iconic species and they are under serious threat.

“People in Britain get excited about endangered tigers and rhinos, but they should be just as concerned about red squirrels.

“We have had a huge amount of help and encouragement from David, who is a pioneer of captive breeding in Britain. In my opinion, he’s a wildlife hero.

“What he’s done to raise the profile of red squirrels and to help in practical terms cannot be praised enough.”

Mayfields is run by tenant farmer Sarah Jenkins and her daughter Megan, who has primary responsibility for looking after Wigeon and Warren.

“I spend all my time with them and they know me well now,” she said. “They are doing fantastically well and are very friendly with each other – they always sleep together.

“At the moment there is a shortage of females, so I’m hoping some female kittens are born.”

As well as providing a lifeline for the species, the red squirrels will also play a part in the education programme at the farm, which trains working dogs and has around 65 sheep.

The enclosures, officially opened by Mr Stapleford on Thursday, were made possible thanks in part to a generous donation by long-standing CRT member Vera Langley, from Chedgrave, near Loddon.

Mrs Langley’s late husband, Arthur, was a friend of Mr Stapleford for many years and shared his passion for red squirrels.

“The enclosures are far beyond my expectations and the squirrels seem to love it here,” she said.

Around 60 people attended the opening and a plaque was unveiled by Mr Stapleford, who lives at Hempton, near Fakenham.

“The enclosures built at Pensthorpe were absolutely ideal and these follow on nicely,” he said.

“It is good to see young people taking it on.

“Megan has the enthusiasm and a natural feel for it.

“This work still gives me as much pleasure as it used to – my passion has not diminished, it just grows.”