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Residents' outrage as squirrels threaten woodland

PUBLISHED: 16:29 26 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:11 07 September 2010

IF anyone said squirrels are a major danger to our natural habitat, you might think they were barking mad. But that is exactly the case as trees across Hampstead and Highgate are at risk from an explosion in the number of grey squirrels. By stripping bark

IF anyone said squirrels are a major danger to our natural habitat, you might think they were barking mad.

But that is exactly the case as trees across Hampstead and Highgate are at risk from an explosion in the number of grey squirrels.

By stripping bark from trunks and branches, the ravenous rodents are causing potentially deadly damage to mature trees on the Heath and in Highgate Wood.

Experts have not been able to offer a certain explanation for the surge in squirrel numbers, but the effect of their nibbling is evident to see.

Wildlife photographer Ron Vester, who lives in Belsize Park, caught one of the feisty pests going hell-for-leather at the bark of a mature beech in the grounds of Kenwood House.

"I've never seen so many grey squirrels here," he said. "This is a fight between the trees and the squirrels and I'm afraid I have to side with the trees.

"As much as I like squirrels, if you cut around the bark on the trunk of a tree then it's finished. I looked up and saw 10 squirrels on the same tree recently - they go at it like a buzz saw.

"The bark falls off the branches like hair at a hairdressers - it just tumbles. They can go round a whole branch in as little as an hour."

He says that while it would take a long time for the squirrels to kill a significant number of trees, the ones being attacked are around 30 years old and there will be no way of replacing them if the squirrels are allowed to continue unchecked.

A spokeswoman for English Heritage, which runs Kenwood House, said they have noticed an increase in the grey squirrel population in the grounds and on the rest of the Heath.

"These are naturally inviting habitats for squirrels," she said. "To this end, we are looking into to ways in which we can sensibly manage the grey squirrel population because they are known to cause damage to trees - especially birch - and steal bird eggs from nests."

And the problem is not just confined to the Heath. The City of London Corporation's arboreal culturalist and conservation manager has reported an unprecedented increase in grey squirrels in Highgate Wood, where they are targeting young saplings and especially hornbeams.

"We don't know what's caused this population growth," said a spokeswoman. "It could be to do with the fact it was a mild winter and there was more food on the ground for the squirrels as a result. It has never happened to this extent before. It is a cause of concern and it's something we are monitoring. We will consider what action to take.


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