I’m Hugh Rowlands, born and raised on the Island of Anglesey in North Wales. I enlisted as a young man and was with the Royal Welch Fusiliers from 1980-1988. My active-duty experience had a significant impact on my life subsequently, and still does to this day. After the Army, I had many different jobs from welding, labouring, factory work and driving jobs but couldn’t hold anything down long term. Living in the town of Llangefni, I found The Dingle Nature Reserve to escape and get my head together.
The reserve, run by the local council, has 45 acres of mixed broadleaf woodland. In the mid-nineties, a project began to remove grey squirrels on the whole island to allow the meagre red squirrel population of about 40 or so to recover. It was around 2011 that a reintroduction was planned for our woodland. Eight red squirrels were ‘soft released’ into the woods. This means that pens were built, so that they could be gradually introduced to their new surroundings. I continued to visit the site, and a hundred or so yards away, put some fallen logs together, repaired some old dry-stone wall and created an open-air hide, where, after putting out lots of hazel, walnuts, and sunflower seeds, I could sit, watch, and photograph. I would post photos on my Facebook and other social media, but I kept my venue private for many years. I even added some ‘natural seating’ to enjoy the time there.
During the pandemic, many folks, some I guess with similar issues, sought mental relaxation in the woods. Sadly, this led to unwanted visitors too in the form of vandals who thought it fun to demolish the site, to dog walkers with off-lead dogs encouraged to chase the red squirrels, and other folks who had no respect for them. Because the site is away from the normal pathways suggests that this wasn’t spontaneous. I started to go five days a week just to keep an eye on things. I was about to just pack it in, but encouragement from many folks made me stick at it. I now co-ordinate visits to the site for anyone who wants to see the squirrels. Whether it’s individuals, families, photographers, film or TV production companies, I’m happy to help.
Recently, Iolo Williams, Patron for the Red Squirrels Trust Wales, was back again with me for some photographing and general red squirrel appreciation. I’ve had visitors on my Facebook page from overseas as well as the UK, come and sit with me and enjoy the company. Quite a few seem very moved by the experience and if anyone understands that it’s me. We now estimate that there are some 50 red squirrels in our woods, way above the normal capacity, but probably due to how well looked after they are. If they’re fit, healthy and well fed, they are more likely to breed twice in the year rather than once. Our growing little population are proof that broadleaf woodland, with a mix of native trees is their preferred habitat.
The local council have listened to my concerns about the vandalism and have promised a fence surround to the site, along with a gated entrance. Whilst grey squirrels have been removed, we need to remain vigilant to minimise SQPV risk. I’m not your usual volunteer in the red squirrel conservation world, and up until recently, I would agree that most of what I was doing was for my own benefit. The last few years have shown me that what I’ve set up, has a similarly moving effect on some folk that I’ve taken there. I know the site doesn’t belong to me, but I dearly love being its steward and guardian.