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Squirrel Appreciation Day 2021

21 Jan 2021

A celebration of a delightful native mammal, the red squirrel

Enigmatic, iconic, beautiful, delightful, just some of the adjectives often used to describe one of our favourite native mammals, the red squirrel. They appear to have a spirit of mischievous irreverence; one that was captured in the Beatrix Potter book ‘The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin’, where Nutkin ignores the concept of respect and ridicules the owl’s authoritarian character with his riddles, baffling him using humour and poetry, with inspiring indifference. The tale of squirrel Nutkin was first published in 1903, when red squirrels would have been abundant in woodlands throughout the UK. However, over the following century the sight of a red squirrel was to become increasingly rare.

Squirrel Appreciation day, held on the 21st of January has been running for twenty years, being first celebrated in 2001.  In the UK the native red squirrel population has a history of decline. Their plight is a human-induced problem, caused through habitat destruction and the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers, groups, projects, partnerships and organisations, we still have red squirrels in the UK to appreciate, and many are working to find the best way to ensure our mistakes do not cause their extinction. Here in Norfolk, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and The East Anglian Red Squirrel Group continue their part in conservation efforts. Managing a captive breeding programme, founded in the 1990’s by David Stapleford, whose life’s endeavour and passion was for British mammal conservation; especially that of the red squirrel.

One our many red squirrels, Flint; known for having a bold personality

  I would like to take this opportunity to remember and appreciate this special man, who was an inspiration and mentor to many during his life as a conservationist, teacher and poet. Behind his quiet unassuming manner was great depth and understanding; not just of British mammals and natural history, but of all life. Born in 1934, David was evacuated to Hampshire from London during the war. He recalled his early memories of walks to school, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the countryside, which awakened his passion for natural history. But it was on the classroom’s nature table where he saw a red squirrel, a magical moment etched in his memory at that first sight of the famed bright orange-red fur and elfin shape. It was 23 years later that David observed squirrels alive, in Thetford Forest still plentiful in 1963 with Norfolk being one of the last mainland strongholds for reds, at that time.

David (in the centre) along with the Pensthorpe Team after receiving his award

The following year David’s adventure of trying to breed red squirrels began with initial intention of releasing in the local woodland. At this time, the effect of grey squirrels on the red squirrels was unclear as they were frequently observed as coexisting; however, over the next three decades David observed red squirrels disappear rapidly. In 1979, David moved to Norfolk where he worked as a head teacher, and increased his successes in breeding red squirrels in captivity. He connected and collaborated with conservationists countrywide, and provided squirrels for national breeding programmes. David’s book ‘An Affair with Red Squirrels’, published in 2002, contains a detailed survey of the fight of the red squirrel in Britain. 


David with his award from the Red Squirrel Survival Trust for his efforts towards red squirrels

David sadly lost his battle with leukaemia in 2012. He was honoured to receive a lifetime achievement award from the ‘Red Squirrel Survival Trust’ and his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those he worked with, who ‘caught the ball’, was his description. Not only in the endeavour to save the red squirrel from extinction, but to encourage a moment of magic to young lives and awaken a passion and interest in the natural world.