First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
As we came down Hugh Kemp’s drive early in the morning, a red squirrel scuttered across the drive just in front of us. It sat up, cleaning its nose with both front paws, its tail a puff of pale russet smoke, black eyes fixed on us, before diving out of sight between the bars of a cattle grid. ‘Come on in,’ said Hugh at the door of Mirk Pot House. ‘I’m sorry my Jane isn’t here to greet you. Coffee? You’ll have to excuse the clutter. Now, then, these red squirrels of ours …’
The tree planter and red squirrel conserver of Snaizeholme is a Yorkshireman by birth and a landscape artist by talent. He’s also been a practical conservationist throughout his eight decades of life. In 1966 he and his wife Jane found the ruinous farmhouse of Mirk Pot in the hidden dale of Snaizeholme, a cleft tucked into the rolling country to the south of Wensleydale. ‘Our battle plan,’ he says, ‘was to buy a derelict hill farm with some outhouses and a reasonable amount of land. We’d rebuilt the house by 1967, and we started planting trees commercially.’
Christmas trees, Sitka spruce, Japanese larch, sycamores – the Kemps planted the bare fellside enthusiastically, and soon began to notice an increase in bird life. When they fenced off the plantation against grazing sheep and deer, ‘mountain ash, hawthorn, bird cherry, the native trees – they all came back. We got expert advice from the British Trust for Ornithology on how to improve our plantations for wildlife; we clear-felled our Sitka; we created a wildlife corridor with native trees – hawthorn, silver and downy birch, willow, sessile and pedunculate oak, blackthorn. What we ended up with was a very young plantation of broadleaves, and a few big conifers. We were trying to encourage the black grouse to return, but inadvertently we were actually planting for red squirrels.’
It was a local woodsman who first spotted a red squirrel in Snaizeholme, but no-one quite believed him. Then in 1997 there were confirmed sightings, followed by a steady increase in red squirrel numbers. With support from DEFRA and the Forestry Commission, and some expert advice from the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, Mirk Pot has become a red squirrel refuge. Grey squirrels – introductions to the UK from North America, now crowding Britain’s native reds to extinction all over the country – are baffled by specially designed feeders which provide the red squirrels with their favourite mixture of peanuts, sunflower seeds and pine nuts. The sessile oaks are coppiced, to retain the trees themselves without allowing them to produce the acorns that grey squirrels love.
As we left the house in Hugh’s company, a red squirrel was swinging on the bird feeder in the garden. It jumped down to the wall, ran along the stones, stopped for a scratch, did a double take when it noticed us, and scampered out of sight up the nearest tree. ‘Stone walls,’ mused Hugh. ‘We’ve had half a mile rebuilt – cost us an arm and a leg, but it’s worth it. Red squirrels hate travelling through thick undergrowth, but they use that wall as a motorway.’
We boarded Hugh’s battered blue Land Rover and went bouncing along rough tracks to West Field, near the specially created viewing area. Hugh told us of the parapox disease, sometimes called squirrel pox. Greys are immune to parapox, but can transmit it to the reds, whom it condemns to a slow and horrible death. ‘Even more reason to keep out the greys,’ was Hugh’s crisp summing up.
At the viewing area there was just one red squirrel on show, a pretty little individual that was sitting up on the bench eating peanuts from the feeder. It soon took to the tree-tops, and its colleagues must have been keeping out of our way, because we saw no more. But red squirrels are generally far from shy, it seems, when food is on the agenda. ‘I found one actually in the food bin by our front door,’ recounted Hugh. ‘So I fixed the lid on properly. But when I took it off next morning, blow me if there wasn’t a squirrel sitting in there eating. Now I chain the lid down – but even so, I’ve seen them on their hind legs trying to prise it open with their front paws!’
I found the red squirrels of Mirk Pot wholly delightful. Whatever the cause – and I suspect it has a lot to do with childhood memories of Beatrix Potter’s cheeky, charming Squirrel Nutkin – their energy, inquisitiveness and delicate beauty are quite irresistible. They thrive in Snaizeholme, quite oblivious of what they owe to Hugh and Jane Kemp. But we, at least, can give thanks for this dedicated couple and the invaluable conservation work they are so effectively doing in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales.
Red squirrels in Snaizeholme (OS Explorer OL2): Access: either on foot via Snaizeholme Red Squirrel Trail (10 miles return walk from Hawes)
(http://www.yorkshiredales.org.uk/index/learning_about/nature_in_the_dales/best_places_to_see/snaizeholme-red-squirrel-trail.htm); or B6255 from Hawes to Widdale Bridge, left up minor road to entrance to Red Squirrel Viewing Area (signed) via Mirk Pot or West Field.
Hugh Kemp leads red squirrel walks, by appointment only (01969-667510).
Further information: Hawes TIC (01969-666210)
Hints: Red squirrels are most active around dawn/dusk and in sunshine after bad weather; their hearing is acute; they’re most likely to be in the treetops. Take binoculars, keep quiet, and stop still if you spot one.
Help and advice
The Wildlife Trusts (01636-677711; www.wildlifetrusts.org) can advise on locating red squirrels across the UK; likewise Natural England (0845-600-3078; www.naturalengland.org.uk), Scottish Natural Heritage (01738-444177; www.snh.org.uk), Countryside Council for Wales (0845-130-6229; www.ccw.gov.uk) and Northern Ireland Environment Agency (www.ni-environment.gov.uk). The Forestry Commission (www.forestry.gov.uk) and the Forest Service of Northern Ireland (www.forestserviceni.gov.uk) are active in conserving red squirrels. The National Trust has developed 5 downloadable Red Squirrel Walks: see www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Red Squirrel Week: 3-11 October 2009. Details: contact The Wildlife Trusts
Reading: Trees and Wildlife in Wensleydale (Mason Bros, Newsagents, Main Street, Hawe, North Yorkshire DL8 3QN – £10 plus postage – tel 01696-667278) is Hugh Kemp’s autobiography.