Q&A with Stephen Trotter

| Interviews, Red Squirrel Awareness Week

Stephen Trotter is a lifelong steward of the environment and advocate for protected species. From monitoring Red Squirrels as Estate Warden in Northumberland during the 80s, to becoming CEO of Cumbria Wildlife Trust, he has a long history of leading ecological work and successful conservation initiatives across Northern England. With expertise in habitat ecology, his work has involved delivering projects and policy to protect, manage, and restore Red Squirrels, often in cooperation with key players such as Defra and Natural England.

As Chief Executive of Cumbria Wildlife Trust, he heads up the charity’s affairs and specific activity relating to Red Squirrel conservation; both on its nature reserves and more widely across the county.

Can you tell us a bit about what the Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s current Red Squirrel conservation project involves both on the ground and behind the scenes? 

The Trust partners with Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE), and actively supports their work across Cumbria. This involves the survey and monitoring of red and grey squirrel populations, and their distribution so we can promote better habitat management. We also strengthen the coordination of fundraising and grey squirrel control.

The Trust owns and manages around 8000 acres of land. We directly organise the regulation of grey squirrels on some of our nature reserves, whilst on others, local Red Squirrel groups do so on our behalf. We have good numbers of Red Squirrels like on Smardale near Kirby Stephen where, thanks to the hard work of the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group, we have Red Squirrels that can be viewed at close quarters by the public.

Our vision for Cumbria and the North is to see the return of the Red Squirrel to its former haunts in healthy numbers.  At the moment we’re involved in planning a large new project called Return of the Reds. This will build on successes of the Red Squirrels United programme which recently ended, and involves collaboration between a number of partners including RSNE, the Wildlife Trusts of Northumberland, Cumbria and Lancashire, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, with an open invitation for local squirrel groups to participate in the programme.

We hope to provide more financial and practical support to local voluntary Red Squirrel groups for their vital work alongside a major new educational programme to raise awareness of the Red Squirrel and its many threats.

Return of the Reds will also test the roll-out of a new grey squirrel fertility regulation project which is currently being developed jointly by APHA, Defra, RSST and UKSA.  This could be a game changer in helping bring back Red Squirrels across the whole of Northern England.

Why is protecting Red Squirrels so important to you, and why does it matter for the rest of us? 

Whilst we do still have some good Red Squirrel populations in Cumbria, they’re extremely vulnerable to expanding grey squirrel population which could displace the reds, given the chance. There is no room for complacency. Without the efforts of local squirrel groups, volunteers, some landowners and charities, in just a few years we could lose the species completely from the North of England.

“In just a few years we could lose the species completely from the North of England.”

We should all care, as the tragic decline of reds is ultimately our fault. By moving invasive and problematic animals like the grey squirrel around the planet, we have caused untold damage to ecosystems around the world.  Surely, we have a responsibility to try to correct our mistakes and reverse the damage? Ultimately, it is in our own interest.

Red Squirrels are also valuable in their own right. They’re a natural part of the woodland ecosystem alongside all of the other plants, birds and animals that have a role in keeping our forests healthy and vibrant.

I can’t imagine a Cumbria without its iconic Red Squirrels – they just belong here.  Losing them here would be like losing the ravens from the Tower of London, it is simply unthinkable. We must protect the remaining populations of Red Squirrels and promote their recovery across their former range in Northern England.

To me, it’s important because Red Squirrels are beautiful and charming; they lift the soul and bring joy to even the most hardened of spirits. I want to keep enjoying the magic that comes from an unexpected glimpse of a Red Squirrel in my life, and I’d like my grandchildren to have the pleasure of that experience too.

“They are the wild jewel in the crown of this landscape.”

Red Squirrels also have a significant economic value. Many of the millions of visitors to Cumbria are drawn by the beauty of its landscape. The Red Squirrel tops the list of must-see wildlife here. They are the wild jewel in the crown of this landscape. The visitor economy is usually worth £2.9 billion to Cumbria each year and Red Squirrels are an essential part of that.

What successes have come from your partnership with Red Squirrels Northern England (and others) in delivering conservation efforts? How important is collaboration long-term?

The major success of RSNE and the local squirrel conservation groups is that we still have Red Squirrels in the North of England and Cumbria. Without this collective effort, they would already have become locally extinct.

“We must not take anything for granted, and everyone can play a part.”

This effort must be sustained whilst the threat from grey squirrels continues, so long term collaboration is vital. We must not take anything for granted and everyone can play a part.

The other success has been developing a first-class survey and monitoring scheme for squirrels, so that we can assess the success of the work. This information is critical to inform conservation strategies. There is some outstanding work going on to raise awareness of the plight of Red Squirrels – it is just that we need to do far more.

What role do volunteer groups play in protecting Red Squirrels and enabling the conservation projects?

“More than 70% of all the activity and effort to safeguard Red Squirrels in Cumbria is undertaken by volunteers.”

Volunteer groups are vital to ensuring the protection of Red Squirrels. More than 70% of all the activity and effort to safeguard Red Squirrels in Cumbria is undertaken by volunteers.  I can’t praise their efforts highly enough. They do brilliant work and without them we would not still have Red Squirrels in Cumbria.

What advice would you give to people who want to get involved? / What’s the best way people can help?

There are lots of ways you can support Red Squirrels….

1. Let your MP and local council know how important Red Squirrels are to you and ask them to support Government measures to protect them.

2. If you’re lucky to live near or take holiday in Red Squirrel areas, you can help by reporting any Red Squirrel sightings you see.

3. Join an organisation supporting Red Squirrel conservation, like a local squirrel group or Wildlife Trust or become a Friend of Red Squirrels. As an active member or volunteer for a local Red Squirrel group, there are many opportunities to get involved in a wide variety of roles for example by surveying and recording, or helping to fundraise.

4. If you can’t spare your time, you can donate to these organisations or RSST, or even leave a legacy or gift in your will.

5. Manage your garden and/or land in a Red Squirrel-friendly way. There’s lots of advice out there to help.

6. If you feed other wild animals or birds, take special care not to feed grey squirrels.  If they do come to your bird table either take measures to prevent them eating bird food or stop feeding them.

What do you see RSST’s role being in Red Squirrel conservation going forward? What opportunities do you see on the horizon?

RSST has a vital role to play. One of the peculiarities of the Red Squirrel conservation sector is the profusion of organisations and groups. I believe that RSST could become the ‘umbrella’ organisation and natural home for all those concerned with saving and promoting Red Squirrels in the UK. It is an organisation that can support and facilitate the efforts of volunteers and local charities on the front line of Red Squirrel conservation, helping to sustain these activities.

RSST has demonstrated its value and success as a fundraiser for a range of Red Squirrel projects. This has had significant outcomes, for example, in catalysing the grey squirrel fertility regulation research programme which is being delivered in partnership with Defra, the UK Squirrel Accord and the Animal and Plant Health Agency. This is an innovative and world-leading approach to dealing with invasive species that has only been possible because of RSST’s hard work.

As we leave the European Union, RSST can also play a valuable role by contributing its experience and knowledge to assist the Government in developing its new land and woodland management payments schemes to maximise the benefit for Red Squirrel conservation, wildlife and other purposes. Here they can champion the interests of Red Squirrels to decision-makers at a national level.

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