Fighting the good fight to save the beloved red squirrel

LOOKING after an orphan squirrel means getting up in the night to feed it with a powdered milk solution.

But it is all in the line of duty for Jerry Moss whose job is to help protect one of England’s last remaining outposts for the red squirrel – the Whinfell Forest in Cumbria.

“I came up here to go to an agricultural and forestry college, but it is where I met my partner, a local girl, and where we’ve settled down. It’s so beautiful up here and the people are so friendly – I never want to leave,” said Jerry, 42, who was born in Melton and spent the first ten years of his life in Hollesley where his dad, Geoff, was the village policeman.

Red squirrels were common all over England until the middle of the last century when their grey cousins – introduced to this country from North America – began to make a big impact.

The more aggressive greys out-compete the reds for food and, tragically, are immune carriers of a pox which is deadly to the latter.

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The last colony of red squirrels in East Anglia was in a small area of Thetford Forest but – despite efforts to protect it by trapping and shooting the invading greys – it became extinct in the 1990s.

Now red squirrels have disappeared form much of mainland England although colonies still exist in the northern counties, as well as in offshore locations, including the Isle of Wight. Jerry is red squirrel conservation ranger in the Whinfell Forest, near Penrith, which is owned by the Lowther estate and contains a Center Parcs holiday village.

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Center Parcs sponsors Jerry’s employment – a job which entails monitoring the red squirrel population in the forest and trapping and shooting greys.

It also involves providing supplementary feed to the reds when times are hard and looking after any abandoned or injured young that are found or handed in by the public.

“We feed them round-the-clock in the early days and then they go outside in cages and then pens before being released back into the wild. They are usually with us for about three months,” Jerry said.

He reckons there are between 120 and 150 reds in Whinfell Forest and probably a few hundreds more spread among various woodlands outside the forest perimeter.

“At the moment the population is being maintained but it is a constant battle – without human intervention the reds would soon disappear from here as well.

“The greys appear to come up the river corridors. We’ve had the odd outbreak of squirrel pox which has killed off some reds,” he said.

His partner, Sarah McNeil, with whom he has a 15-year-old son, Hagen, is a photographer and sculptress and has created a limited edition model of a squirrel - called Charles after the Prince of Wales, who is patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.

Sarah plays an important role in raising orphaned reds. She said: “We feed them on Lactol milk which comes in powder form and is mixed with warm water to produce a solution high in both protein and fat. We feed little and often, about every two hours but have to be careful as too much milk in one sitting could kill him. In the wild the squirrel would suckle until about eight weeks old and then begin to naturally forage for himself.”

Whinfell Forest was made into a red squirrel reserve in 2002. It is one of 16 in the country and the last in Cumbria. However, there are also protected colonies in Northumberland, Yorkshire and Lancashire.

The greys live in relatively dense populations compared with the reds.

Jerry said scientists had yet to discover exactly how the squirrel pox was transmitted. “It could be contact with urine, faeces or saliva – they just don’t know,” he said.

When Jerry left school in Suffolk he worked for a private forestry contractor in Tangham Forest, learning how to use a chainsaw as he and his colleagues cleared up many of the fallen trees following the 1987 hurricane.

It was this work which led him to set off for Cumbria to take a national diploma in woodland management, particularly for game.

This led to jobs as a rabbit and mole controller and then as a game-keeper and it was while involved in pheasant rearing that he met Sarah.

The came the chance to take on the role of red squirrel conservation ranger. Jerry and his assistant, Christian Bensaid patrol Whinfell Forest and – in consultation with other landowners, including the National Trust – the area within a five mile radius of the forest.

Jerry is a committee member of the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group which is run by volunteers and needs funds in order to employ its own ranger. Funds for this are currently being provided via an award from the Biffa waste collection company under the landfill tax arrangements.

Jerry is very happy in his adopted northern homeland and in his conservation role.

“People worry about endangered animals in other parts of the world.

“It is all right sending money abroad to try to save animals such as the tiger – and I agree with that – but if we don’t watch out we’re going to lose our only native squirrel, a beautiful and iconic species.”

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