Leon Savage – RSST Volunteer of the Year 2022

Jun 21, 2023 | Uncategorized

So have you always been a Cramlington man?
“Yes, I spent my childhood and teenage years in Cramlington, living just a stone’s throw away
from the Nature Reserve. In my early 20’s I moved onto the farm, which is just outside of
Cramlington, and I have been there ever since. As a youngster, most weekends and school
holiday I’d be helping on the farm. I used to beat and help on the local shoot with vermin
control but it’s been quite a while now since “I’ve been involved in sport shooting”
Growing up and helping on the farm and shoots is always going to give you a keen interest in
local wildlife as well as pest control”
How did you get involved in red squirrel conservation?
“I sort of backed into it really. When you are involved in conservation, pest control is a big
part of everyday life”. Around 2007 I became the Trees and Woodlands Officer for
Northumberland CC and John Carr, the founder of Cramlington and District Red Squirrel
Group (CADRSG) had contacted us in relation to Grey Squirrel Management access
permission for some of our woods. It was a couple of years or so after, that I contacted John
to ask if I could get involved with the group.
Initially he said all locations were currently covered by volunteers, but after a while, a
location became free as a volunteer had moved on. He told me I’d get bored as nothing had
been seen in the area. Although I was told to check the feed stations in a months’ time
initially, curiosity got the better of me and after a week, the hair sample sticky tabs on fifteen
monitoring stations all showed the presence of red squirrels. It was at that moment that I
knew this group could be something special.”
Tell us about CADRSG
John started in June 2013 but the group formed in 2014 when two others committed their
time – just three volunteers.” When I joined in 2016, there was still only a handful of
volunteers with John & Jack Welsh the two coordinators. The problem was that it was more
firefighting reactively than doing things pro-actively, however, if it wasn’t for their early
involvement, it is likely that Red Squirrels would be absent from the area. It was a massive
task that they were doing, and we needed more volunteers. But with growth, we needed to
spend more, and not out of our own pockets, so John and Jack agreed to most of my
suggestions on how we could grow and modernise the group. By 2018, we were more
organised, had more bodies and were better focussed on what we were doing.
To make the group more official and structured we created the committee with myself, Jack

and John all taking on roles. It was at this point that Helen joined the team as the final

committee member and bought with her endless amounts of enthusiasm which has proved
to be vital for community engagement and events.

Every volunteer group needs a Helen

We developed a five-year plan called the Thin Red Line”. In this we created defined areas for
volunteers, established over 200 monitoring stations to record red and grey squirrel activity,
developed a community action plan, re organised our fund raising along with community,
media and social media engagement. At this point we also encouraged our volunteers to
record theirs online via a spreadsheet database I created, this in turn reduced the time
needed for individuals to check paper records and allows the committee to monitor activity
across the area.

Our reds don’t have a lollipop

After taking over the East Cramlington Nature Reserve as our base, we set up a wildlife
feeding station to encourage all types of wildlife, not just squirrels to be watched and
photographed by the local community and more recently a nature trail around the reserve.
Overall, we want to create something that’s sustainable for the long term and improves
engagement for the younger generation.”
How did you grow your volunteer force?
“We now have nearly fifty volunteers, some recruited through other local conservation
groups. We took over the East Cramlington Nature Reserve as our base when the previous
‘Friends of’ became unable to do so. This is a great recruitment tool for us, as like with me at
the beginning, instead of being told “there isn’t any monitoring roles available at the
moment, we’ll give you a shout when something comes up”, we have a great way of getting
people to start helping with the up-keep and running of the reserve and many are staying
with us whether they get to do monitoring or not”. It is another form of support and


Even in the cold, there is lots to do

You have another way of getting people involved?
“Yes, and it’s working really well. We have partnered with other local volunteer groups,
Friends of Holywell Dene, Friends of Valley Park, (a Cramlington Town Council initiative), and
Friends of Crofton Field to name a few. Through these groups, we have expanded our
monitoring capacity hugely. The woodlands that come under their stewardship are really
important so to have them helping us with monitoring, whilst they go about their own
activities, is really rewarding for all concerned”. We share data via google drive documents
and everybody involved is keenly helping collect the data. Whilst we suggest that the feeders
are checked every ten days or so, sometimes we are seeing updates every two or three days
because they are there doing their own work and activities.” Co-sharing volunteers that
work in the same habitat gives everyone more to do and the volunteers find it really


Cellular camera footage

Tell us about hazelnuts and bridges?
On a small but busy B- road between Cramlington and Seaton Delaval, we have woodland
on both sides. On the northern side, it contains a coppiced hazel area. It is council owned,
but maintained for a local crafts artist who makes sculpture’s, furniture and the like from the
interwoven hazel branches. This part of the woodland is like a ‘all you can eat buffet’ for red
squirrels, but many of them come from the southern side of the road to get to there. The
southern side is mainly coniferous woodland. When we first started expanding, we noticed a
number of red squirrel road deaths with twenty in one year being the worst. We studied the
fatalities for a number of years getting a good idea where the hotspots were. We’d read that
in Ben Shieldaig in the Highlands, a group working with Trees For Life had installed a squirrel
bridge to span the woods, high above a road and began to do our research. We raised
enough money to fund the bridges, along with some very generous donations of time and
equipment. Once all the approvals and permissions were in place, we placed two bridges

The Pot of gold / A red at the end of the rainbow

across the road, tethered to trees on either side. Within days of them being put up, there
were both still and video images of red squirrels using the bridges. The biggest proof
however is that road fatalities are now down to two or three a year in that same stretch of
road. Storm Arwen in November 2021 took its toll on the bridges and both were brought
down as the trees supporting them were felled in the high winds. We got permission to use
telegraph poles instead, and again with some fantastic time and equipment donations were
able to get them back up quickly. We also use the hazel plantation??? as an activity day
for the younger members of the community. Each year, around early September when the nuts
are ripe, we get many young groups, from schools, beavers, scouts etc, and have a nut
picking day, with prizes for the most picked. The nuts are used in the feeders as part of the
conservation effort and help keep the costs down.

The viewing screen within East Cranlington Nature Reserve

And was your nomination and award a surprise?

Leon accepting his award from RSST

“Absolutely, on all fronts. Looking back there were enough clues that something was going
on but I didn’t put two and two together until Helen asked you to speak. I felt very humbled
and very proud. As I said to you then, I’m completely overwhelmed by the award, and I’ll
accept it but on behalf of all the group. When you consider the number of volunteer hours
per year, (almost four and a half thousand) across the whole group, it’s a testament to the
hard work of everybody involved, and simply wouldn’t work without it. Whilst one of the
biggest frustrations, shared by many other groups, is where certain councils simply won’t
allow grey squirrel management on their land, I get a huge amount of pleasure from seeing
the positivity that comes from the work that we do. From the expansion of the strongholds,
as our little individual red squirrel populations begin to expand, through to the community
spirit and involvement from those working with us. It’s also good to be helping some more
recent groups like Bedlington, who are 18 months young, to find their feet and become

more established.

A Big Surprise

If you are interested to find out more about red squirrel volunteering with or near
Cramlington contact:
If you’d like to keep up to date with our group’s activities visit our
If you are interested in donating to any of the many ongoing projects of CADRSG then please
follow the link:

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