The Red Squirrel

The Red Squirrel

The red squirrel used to be a familiar sight for UK residents in bygone days, but today there are only around 140,000 of our native species still in existence – while the number of non-native grey squirrels has rocketed to 2.5 million!

Urgent conservation efforts are underway to protect Britain’s much-loved red squirrel, which has existed here for thousands of years, but numbers have declined gradually over the past 140 years, with the introduction of the grey squirrel during the Victorian era being cited as a prime factor.

The exact origins of the red squirrel are unknown, although scientists believe they may have existed in Europe during the middle of the Pleistocene period, between 120,000 and 780,000 years ago, after fossilised remains were found in Hungary.

After definitive evidence was uncovered at Binnel Point on the Isle of Wight, the earliest confirmed remains of the species in Britain date back around 4,500 years. However, the general consensus in the scientific world is that they have been in the region for around 10,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age.

Red Squirrel

© Menno Schaefer / Adobe Stock

 

Distinctive features

The scientific name for the red squirrel is Sciurus Vulgaris. With a combined length of its head and body being between 19cm and 23cm, and its tail between 15cm and 20cm long, an adult squirrel weighs 250g to 340g – males and females are the same size.

The red squirrel has a long tail to help it balance and steer, as it jumps from tree to tree and runs along the branches. The tail can also wrap around the animal’s body to keep it warm while asleep.

Sharp, curved claws help it to ascend and descend trunks and branches – it can even climb walls as a result of its claws. The species has strong hind legs that help it to leap between trees and it can even swim.

Depending on its location and the time of year, the red squirrel’s fur can vary in colour, from bright red to a very deep shade that can look almost black – although bright red coats are most common in Britain. Its underside is always cream-coloured. Shedding its coat twice annually, it switches to a lighter, thinner summer coat. When it reaches adulthood, it has quite large ear tufts.

The main difference between a red and grey squirrel is the size. The much larger eastern grey squirrel has a combined head and body length of between 25cm and 30cm and can weigh up to 800g. Predominantly grey, this can sometimes look like a brownish colour. With a large, very bushy tail, both male and female grey squirrels are the same size and have the same colouring.

 

Habitat

The red squirrel is seldom seen in British gardens today. They were a more common sight up until the Victorians introduced the grey squirrel from North America. The first report of grey squirrels escaping and establishing themselves in the wild in Britain dates from 1876. They had been brought into the UK as a seemingly lovely addition to Victorian gardens. Prior to this, red squirrels could be found in just about every area of the UK.

Now, they tend to live in woodland areas, preferring coniferous woods and Scots pine. The best time to spot red squirrels is when there are fewer leaves on the trees in autumn and winter. This is the time of year when they are also more likely to be out and about gathering food for the winter.

There is a population of red squirrels remaining in Grasmere in the Lake District, where they can be seen on walking trails and clustering round lawns. The Grasmere Red Squirrel Group leads conservation work to protect the species.

 

Population decline

Across the UK, the red squirrel population has been in decline since the late 1800s. Conservationists say this is due to a combination of factors, including the prevalence of grey squirrels, disease and a loss of habitat.

If both grey and red squirrels live in the same area, the greys tend to monopolise any food supply. A virus called squirrelpox can be carried by greys, who can live with it, but it can kill red squirrels, whose population has fallen 25 times faster in areas where the disease exists.

Red squirrels used to be actively hunted in the New Forest in Hampshire during the late 19th century. In 1889, it was reported almost 2,300 had been shot there because they were believed to have a detrimental effect on the timber industry.

According to James Richie, the former assistant keeper of the Royal Museum of Scotland, red squirrels were “persecuted to a startling level” in forests across Scotland in the 1800s. In 1903, a conservation group, The Highland Squirrel Club, was launched to counter the “devastation” brought to the populations in the woods of east Ross Shire and Inverness. The group logged the number of red squirrels being killed and reported that between 1903 and the end of 1917, more than 60,400 squirrels had been killed in the region.

Today, rather than reds being deliberately killed by people, the main cause of their demise is their grey counterpart. Our native reds are mainly found in remote, wilder locations.

In 1945, a conservation survey showed red squirrels could be found all over Britain, while greys existed mainly in southern England. By 2010, when a similar study was carried out, the map had changed considerably. Reds could be found only in small pockets of the British Isles, while the greys had almost completely taken over most of the country.

Unfortunately, conservationists say that without proper management, our red squirrels could be wiped out in England in just 10 years, so time is running out. They say it is apparent that the red and grey squirrels can’t live in the same areas, or the reds will suffer.

 

Royal support

Red squirrels have a royal supporter in Prince Charles, the Duke of Cornwall. He is protector of the reds living on Balmoral Estate and is said to “adore” them. Red Squirrels Northern England, a conservation charity, was created at the invitation of Prince Charles in 2011. It supports various initiatives to protect red squirrels, using strategic and targeted action.

The Duke of Cornwall was pictured in the national press in November 2018 to celebrate his 70th birthday, when it was revealed he even allowed squirrels from the estate into his home! He said he took great delight in watching them playing, running round and chasing each other. They are regular visitors to his house at Birkhall.

In an interview, he revealed he would sit quietly, so that the squirrels could play unhindered. He leaves jackets on a chair, putting nuts in the pockets, to attract the squirrels. He watches them with only their tails sticking out of the pockets as they gather the nuts. He calls them “incredibly special creatures”.

As patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, which protects the endangered species, he is said to be “completely infatuated” with them – and even recognises the ones on the Balmoral Estate as individuals, giving them names. He is a lifelong supporter of saving the environment and promoting green initiatives.

National charity, the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, is fighting to Save Our Squirrels. So is the Wildlife Trust, which is working to increase public awareness, provide better education and lead scientific monitoring and habitat management.

It is a sobering thought that if conservation efforts don’t succeed, we may no longer see red squirrels at all by the end of the 2020s if their numbers continue to fall at their current rate.

 

Nature at its best!

If you enjoy seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, visit Pinetum Gardens – it’s a truly special day out for all the family!

Our magnificent 30-acre estate, in the heart of St Austell, has more than 6,000 types of plants in open parkland. In a traditional English landscape style, mature oaks and a lake create a wonderful visitor attraction.

Come and see us soon!

Insect Decline: The Effects on Nature

Insect Decline: The Effects on Nature

Insects are everywhere – and with more than 1.5 million species, they are the most common living creature on Earth. Despite many people thinking they’re nothing but a pest, they have evolved in their millions for a very good reason.

Insects play a crucial role in our ecosystem – so the news that their population is dwindling dramatically has sparked fears that our entire ecosystem is set to change. The widespread loss of insects would have serious repercussions, as agriculture would suffer and other species would disappear.

According to new research, around 40% of insect species are now in decline. While many people might feel this isn’t important, on the contrary, it will have lasting effects on our planet’s future. Entire ecosystems would collapse without insects and this, in turn, would have detrimental effects on the human race.

Butterfly

© Cathleen Howland / Adobe Stock

 

Latest research

A leading researcher has warned that if the decline of many species of insects isn’t stopped, it will have major repercussions. Francisco Sánchez-Bayo led a study at the University of Sydney in Australia, which was published in the Biological Conservation journal.

The report sent shockwaves through the scientific community when it revealed 40% of our insect species are disappearing. Sánchez-Bayo has warned that if we don’t stop the trend, many of our ecosystems will collapse.

Previous studies have focused on specific areas, but the research carried out in Sydney is the first to tackle the problem on a global level. According to a study by European researchers in 2017, the number of insects in 63 protected areas in Germany has declined by more than 75% since 1990.

Further studies carried out in 2018 by researchers at the National Academy of Sciences revealed that insects and arthropods, such as spiders, had declined by up to 60% in the rainforests of Puerto Rico since the 1970s.

 

Why is this happening?

One of the main causes is habitat change, caused by human activities. These include the conversion of natural habitats into farmland, the draining of wetlands and swamps and increasing deforestation.

Across Europe and North America, small family farms used to play an important role in supporting insects. Their open pastures, hedgerows and places where wildflowers grew were important to the insect population. Now, the agricultural sector increasingly uses chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Unfortunately, they can kill even the insect species that aren’t being targeted. For example, the insecticide, neonicotinoid, has been blamed in particular for killing bees.

Conservationists say there are between 80 million and 100 million domesticated bee hives worldwide, each containing 10,000 to 60,000 bees, but numbers are dwindling significantly. In August 2018, it was reported one-third of the UK’s bee population had disappeared since 2008.

Research showed 24% of bees across Europe were threatened with extinction. In the United States, the situation is even more serious, with claims that some beekeepers have lost 50% of their hives. This was said to be due to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder – most of the worker bees have disappeared, leaving the queen behind.

The scientific community has been unable to pinpoint the cause. A number of reasons have been suggested, such as the presence of Varroa mites, various disease-causing pathogens, loss of habitat and the presence of neonicotinoids.

Bees pollinate around one-third of food crops and 90% of wild plants, providing food for livestock, so the implications of their loss are extremely serious. The effects on biodiversity, the food chain and ultimately the food that reaches our table could be disastrous.

Climate change also plays a role in insect decline, particularly weather extremes that are causing droughts. Other causes include parasites and invasive species.

 

Insects most at risk

As well as bees, some insects are being affected more than others. These include butterflies, moths and other pollinators and insects such as dung beetles, which carry out the crucial task of decomposing waste matter, such as faeces.

Around half of the species of moths and butterflies are in decline and one-third are threatened with extinction. When it comes to beetles and ants, 50% of the species are dwindling

The caddisfly is one insect that’s seriously at risk, with 63% of its species in danger. Researchers say they are particularly vulnerable to pollution, as they lay their eggs in water.

A total of 58 species of insect have been declared extinct in recent years, according to a report compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in July 2016. These included the Saint Helena earwig, two species of mayfly, Ridley’s stick insect and species of locust and grasshopper. The report also suggested a further 46 insect species were “probably extinct”.

 

Importance of insects

Insects are crucial to the survival of our planet. They are at the bottom of the food chain and are eaten by birds, small mammals and fish. If their numbers decline, there will be no food supply for other creatures, whose numbers will decrease too. This will continue up the food chain and will lead to food shortages for people in the future.

If insects that take care of waste disposal (such as dung beetles) disappear, animal and plant waste won’t be broken down naturally, leading to “unpleasant results”, scientists warn. Without insects, we would also no longer have some of the products they provide, such as honey, beeswax and silk.

Scientists say more research is needed on a global scale into the disappearance of insects, warning that species can vanish very quickly, so we must take action to prevent this before it’s too late.

 

How can people help?

We can protect insects in our own garden by following a number of simple steps. Most importantly, never use chemical insecticides and pesticides, which can have a devastating effect even on the insects you don’t wish to target.

Have a diverse selection of plants in your garden to attract bees and other pollinators, turning it into a mini-meadow. Flowers rich in nectar, such as red clover, bird’s foot trefoil and greater knapweed, are ideal for attracting bees, wasps, moths and butterflies.

For more advice, join a group that promotes environmentally-friendly gardening such as UK charity, Garden Organic. Also, sign up for Buglife’s Get Britain Buzzing campaign, that offers useful advice on wildlife gardening and how to protect our insects.

Check with local retailers on whether their plants are chemically-treated, ask for organic pesticides and always check the labels on products for garden use. By starting small in our own gardens, people’s combined efforts could help reverse the trend and save our insects.

If you enjoy beautiful ornamental gardens, filled with a diverse selection of trees and more than 6,000 plant species, visit Pinetum Gardens.  Follow the Insect Explorer Trail, and marvel the open parkland and tranquil gardens in our 30-acre estate – it’s a wonderful day out for all the family, including the dogs!

The Bullfinch: A Brief History

The Bullfinch: A Brief History

The bullfinch is known for its distinctive appearance, as it has a stocky body and chunky head with a black cap. It’s front-heavy appearance and thick neck is similar to that of a bull, thus the name “bullfinch”.

With a bright, pinky-red breast, the male bird is easily recognisable when he visits your garden. The female’s breast is a more muted, neutral, buff shade, but both males and females have a grey back, white rump and black tail.

The bullfinch is a member of the passerine family of birds – also known as perching birds or songbirds. It was kept as a pet in bygone times, due to its beautiful and melodic singing voice. Today, quite rightly, it’s more likely to be found flying free in the wild, rather than in a cage entertaining visitors in someone’s parlour!

Bullfinch bird

© Jesus / Adobe Stock

 

When was the bullfinch discovered?

Although the first official mention of the bullfinch was made in a European nature book in the 18th century, the bird’s ancestors date back around 12,000 years to Portugal, according to a recent scientific find.

An international team of researchers exploring the island of Graciosa, in the Atlantic Ocean’s Azores archipelago off the coast of Portugal, have discovered the remains of an extinct species of bullfinch called Pyrrhula Crassa.

Its bones were found in a cavity inside a volcano through which lava once flowed. The bird was still in existence up to a few hundred years ago, but died out due to people colonising the islands and introducing invasive wildlife species.

The bullfinch was officially recognised for the first time by the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus in his 1758 book, Systema Naturae. As one of his major works, the book launched the practice of scientifically naming animals.

British academic William Burley Lockwood studied the etymology of bird names and published a factual book, The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names, in 1984. He said the bullfinch was named in the same way as the “bullfrog” and “bulldog” in recognition of its “literally bull-headed” build. He noted the bird’s “neckless rotundity”.

Also known as the Pyrrhula Pyrrhula, the bullfinch lives across the UK today. Its Latin name comes from the Greek word “purrhoulas”, which means “worm eating bird”. The species has spread across large areas, stretching from Ireland to northern Europe and beyond, as far as Japan.

 

When can you see the bullfinch?

The bullfinch is around in the UK all year round. An unobtrusive and quiet species, which congregates in small, loose flocks or in pairs, it can also be seen on its own foraging for food. It is often overlooked in summer, when our gardens are busy with other birds.

The bullfinch is not a regular garden visitor as a rule. It inhabits agricultural farmland, woodland areas, coniferous forests and parks, and can live in blackthorn and hawthorn hedges, or in fruit orchards. Being a shy species, it is seldom found in areas of open space and rarely ventures into gardens.

According to the Birdwatch study, run by the British Trust for Ornithology, only 10% of people taking part reported seeing a bullfinch in their own garden. In summer, as natural food supplies increase, they are less likely to be found venturing into gardens.

It may be more easily spotted during the winter months, when small flocks of bullfinch will arrive at feeding sites, often travelling in smaller family groups.

During the spring, the bullfinch likes to feed on the buds of fruiting trees and is sometimes considered to be a pest, as it damages the crop. With a diet that consists of mostly seeds and plants, such as nettles, ash and elm, it will also eat fruit from trees and bushes. In particular, it enjoys fleshy fruits, such as raspberries and strawberries.

When it forages for worms or insects, this is mainly to feed fledglings. If you’re hoping to attract the elusive bullfinch to a garden feeding table, sunflower seeds and raisins are among their favourite foods.

Making a nest from twigs, moss and lichens, the bullfinch normally mates for life. A bonded pair will lay up to five eggs at a time, on at least two occasions, during the breeding season from April to August.

 

Is the bullfinch an endangered species?

The bullfinch suffered a population decline in the latter part of the 20th century, but it is gradually making a comeback. However, its population remains 36% lower than it was in 1967, according to the Beyond the Maps research programme, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology.

The study cites the fact that the bullfinch has lost much of its habitat to agricultural growth. Today, it is listed as an “amber” status species – its population has suffered a decline, but numbers are now starting to recover, although it is still not classed as safe.

Primarily, population increases have occurred in some parts of Scotland, on the Inner Hebrides islands and in western Ireland.

In an idyllic countryside setting, surrounded by trees, Pinetum Gardens is the perfect place to visit this spring and summer if you want to experience some of the many wonders of nature – including the bullfinch!

The Victorian Gardener

The Victorian Gardener

The British are known for their love of cultivating beautiful gardens – a passion which goes back to the Middle Ages. In those days, the gardens were useful and well-ordered, providing fruit and vegetables and also herbs to make medicines. However, the luxury of having a well-stocked garden was reserved only for the upper classes and for the monasteries, with fruit orchards and rectangular beds of produce providing fresh food.

Many ordinary people lived an impoverished lifestyle and it wasn’t until the Victorian era that the middle classes in suburban areas began to take an interest in gardening. The British public became fascinated with the new plants that were being shipped in from all over the world.

Rhododendron

© Magnus / Adobe Stock

As a result, a more formal style of garden became the norm, displaying the latest species brought back to England by the explorers of the era. Today’s gardens remain influenced by the Victorian style – in particular those belonging to large country estates and stately homes.

In recent years, a resurgence of interest has led to new gardens being created in the Victorian style. They have been a popular feature of the Chelsea Flower Show in the 21st century.

 

Victorian boom

In the Victorian era, from 1837 to 1901, gardening became a pastime that could be enjoyed by the masses. An increase in population led to more middle-class families moving to the suburbs, while new technology made gardening easier, and more diverse plants boosted interest. Gardening became a status symbol of the industrial revolution.

When Edwin Budding of Thrupp, Gloucestershire, invented the lawnmower in 1830, it made garden maintenance much easier. Prior to this, the scythe had been the main means of cutting back a garden. By the 1860s, lawn mowers were being mass produced.

Experiments to create hybrid plants had begun in the 1830s. Many took place at the laboratory garden at Down House, in Kent, where the legendary naturalist, biologist and geologist Charles Darwin learned how to adapt orchids for fertilisation.

In addition, the development of sheet glass in 1847 meant larger greenhouses could be built more cheaply, while the invention of asphalt in the 1860s led to the introduction of more garden paths.

 

Main garden features

Finely-manicured lawns became a feature of the Victorian garden. For wealthy families with a large lawn, it became an outdoor “parlour”, with traditional garden furniture, such as ornate chairs and a table. The lawn needed constant attention to keep it in tip-top shape.

Trees were also a popular feature, providing shade when sitting outdoors. Trees with bright leaves, or “weeping” species, were often planted. For the wealthier families, more exotic trees could be cultivated in the conservatory or greenhouse.

Larger collections of trees were displayed in arboretums, while shrubs were a common means of defining property lines, marking paths and hiding fences. Mixed species of shrubs would also frame doorways and bay windows.

 

Rhododendron

Among the most popular species of plants were the rhododendron, camellia and magnolia. Each has its own fascinating history.

The 19th century English botanist, Sir William Jackson Hooker (who had helped populate Kew Gardens) was fascinated by the rhododendron. He said the rhododendron genus “excited interest” across Europe when he exhibited coloured lithographic drawings of 26 new species that his son, Joseph, had discovered in the Kingdom of Sikkim, in the eastern Himalayan mountains, between Bhutan and Nepal.

The detailed botanical drawings had been created by Walter Fitch, based on Joseph’s sketches that he had made while in Sikkim. They were made into a widely-read book, Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalayas.

The colourful drawings of the exotic plants, with their bright red and white flowers and six-inch trumpets, were produced in a pre-photography era. They were totally different from the more delicate rhododendrons that had been introduced into Britain from Asia Minor and North America prior to 1850.

Despite the incredible beauty of the drawings, they were later described as an “understatement” when compared with the magnificent real plants. When the new species of rhododendron were brought back to Britain, they became the “aristocrats” of the plant world.

 

Camellia

The camellia has also entranced gardeners since Victorian times. The exotic plant blooms quite early in the year, producing stunningly beautiful flowers. Camellias had been popular in China and Japan for centuries, but they didn’t appear in Britain until the early 19th century.

By 1850, the camellia was a much-prized ornamental shrub. The formality of the blooms and the elegant evergreen foliage made it particularly popular.

Interest in the camellia waned in the early 20th century, but it became popular again in the 1950s, when new varieties and species were introduced. The camellia has remained on trend, thanks to its ability to bloom early in spring, with the most famous variety being C Japonica.

This species blooms from late January until April or May. When there’s a mild start to the New Year, it flourishes and the flowers bloom early. However, if snow and ice then return and the air is particularly damp, this doesn’t suit the camellia.

 

Magnolia

The magnolia was named after the 17th-century French botanist Pierre Magnol, who invented the concept of plant families, based on their morphological characters. He recognised the evergreen American species, which became known as Magnolia Virginiana.

The plant was first grown in Europe in the 18th century and Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named it “magnolia” in 1737.

Despite the magnolia being “discovered” in the 17th century, it is one of the most primitive plants in evolutionary history. Fossils have been unearthed showing that it existed in North America, Asia and Europe more than 100 million years ago.

In Victorian times, when small, ornamental gardens became popular, evergreen magnolias were a common choice, even in the gardens of smaller houses. There are around 80 species in existence today and about 50% of them are tropical.

 

Victorian legacy

Without the inquisitive nature and the artistry of our Victorian ancestors, the British landscape would look very different today – we have a lot to thank them for!

Adorned with a wonderful assortment of mature trees and more than 6,000 plant species, Pinetum Gardens is a 30-acre estate that is brimming with exquisite botanical examples. Come and see us soon!