Like her favourite animal, Elizabeth Bamford normally keeps a low profile. But now she is being recognised for her red squirrel conservation work with an award from Prince Charles’s squirrel charity and a ceremony at Alnwick Castle.
The awards, from the Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST), will be presented by His Grace the Duke of Northumberland in a ceremony at Alnwick Castle in June.
And in synchronicity, the spotlight found Elizabeth as her beloved red squirrel made a dramatic reappearance on the Paxton House estate.
The red squirrel population at Paxton had been destroyed this spring by squirrel pox, causing concern as to whether they would ever come back.
But Elizabeth was adamant red squirrels would return to Paxton. “As I was on my way here, I got a call to tell me that a healthy red squirrel had just been sighted at Paxton.
“As you can imagine, we are ecstatic. I tell people, if you do the right things, and wait long enough, reds will come back. But there has to have been a previous history of reds living there.”
Elizabeth’s love for squirrels began when one ate the seed she left out for birds in her Lake District garden. Rather than be annoyed, Elizabeth was struck by the vulnerability of her visitor.
Soon she was helping make local roads and quarries squirrel-safe, and when she moved to Berwick she joined the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. From there, she went on to work for Berwick Save Our Squirrels (SOS), a voluntary organisation that recently developed another branch in Wooler.
Lead volunteer Elizabeth prides herself on her team working on both sides of the border, the only such group to do so.
There are around 138,000 red squirrels in the UK, down from an estimated high of almost 3.5 million. The conifer forests of Northumberland are an ideal habitat for the reds, and Kielder Forest holds roughly 60 per cent of the UK population.
It wasn’t always such a smooth operation, though. In the early days, Elizabeth and her colleagues attempted a survey of Kyloe Woods, a habitat they knew sustained a sizeable red population. But they hadn’t counted on the trees.
“We were trying to log these tree types, and of course Kyloe is famous for importing the leylandii. There we were with our little ‘Book of British Trees’ looking around at these hundreds of foreign varieties, thinking, ‘What?’”
Fast forward to this month, and over 110 volunteers are gearing up for a red squirrel census across the North of England. The ‘Red Army’ as they are known will visit woodlands across Northumberland recording red squirrel numbers in the largest conservation project of its kind in the country.Elizabeth recruited and trained many of the volunteers.
Woodland areas ranging south from Berwick to Wylam, as well as pockets around Morpeth and Rothbury, will all be explored.
The volunteers, working under the supervision of Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE), will be using various methods to get an idea of numbers. Some will be walking the woods and spotting squirrels as they go, while others are installing cameras to catch the animals unawares.
There are also sticky pads being set up, which catch stray hairs from passing squirrels. The hairs can be checked later to determine which species have been present.
Elizabeth herself can tell reds from greys just by looking at a single hair.
The data will be published in June, and will hopefully be the first of many such programmes that can map any changes in red and grey squirrel populations.
The various groups and organisations springing up to defend it are testament to the appeal of the red squirrel, and it is this co-operation Elizabeth has been recognised for.
She has been key in bringing people from various backgrounds together in support of the red squirrel.
Landowners from both sides of the border, ghillies, gardeners and gamekeepers have all contributed time and expertise to the project. But Elizabeth stresses that anybody interested can take responsibility for ensuring an animal survives.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re running around 24/7 in the woods or if you just report a sighting of a squirrel,” she said.
“In fact, that can be the most effective way the public can get involved.
“With public sightings, we can track movements of red and grey squirrels across the Border area. The more information we have, the better work we can do.”