The latest great-grand kittens of a red squirrel dubbed a “wondermum” have been born at Pensthorpe Natural Park, near Fakenham.
Tortoiseshell, a red squirrel who gave birth to 50 kittens during her lifetime, has died at the grand age of nine, but her descendants have just emerged into the spring sunshine at Pensthorpe giving fresh hope into the campaign to save the red squirrel from extinction in the UK.
The first few weeks of their lives will be crucial to their survival and the kittens have yet to be named. If all goes well, the latest generation of endangered reds to be born at Pensthorpe will become part of the East Anglian Red Squirrel Group breeding programme.
Tortoiseshell’s kittens have been resettled all over the UK as part of release and captive breeding projects introduced to halt the alarming decline in the population of Britain’s only native species of squirrel.
Since 2008, when Tortoiseshell had her first litter, several of her offspring have been sent to the Anglesey as part of a hugely successful programme to repopulate the Welsh island with reds. A population of less than 40 has grown to more than 700 now.
Red squirrels were once a common sight in conifer forests across the country. Tree felling and the introduction of grey squirrels 150 years ago, have been blamed for a drastic decline in the population. Grey squirrels now outnumber reds by 20-1.
While a few pockets of woodland still support small communities of red squirrels in England and Wales, the last stronghold of the species is Scotland. But as a grey squirrel wave sweeps northwards, it carries with it a disease which is deadly to their red cousins – and some conservationists predict the species could be wiped out in a generation.
“Tortoiseshell really was a national treasure,” said Chrissie Kelley, head of species management at Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, and co-ordinator for the East Anglian Red Squirrel Group. “She was a wonder-mum of the squirrel world. She produced litter upon litter of kittens and was a fantastic mother to all her kittens.
“Red squirrels only survive in a handful of locations in the UK. We are proud that Pensthorpe is one of those places. We have had pairs breeding successfully here since 1998.”