Christian Bensaid

Ullswater squirrel ranger

Christian Bensaid - Ullswater squirrel ranger

Christian is the Ullswater ranger for the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group. He dedicates his time to protecting our red squirrels in Ullswater and Haweswater.

Red squirrel sitting on grass at Aira Force

How long have you been with Penrith and District Red Squirrels Group and why did you decide to become a red squirrel ranger?

I started as a volunteer with the Penrith and District Red Squirrels Group in 2006. At the time, I was studying at Newton Rigg and working part time as a ranger at Center Parcs Whinfell forest in Penrith. It was working closely with red squirrels and learning their plight at Whinfell forest that I decided to dedicate my time and energy in to doing anything I could to help protect our native and endangered species, the red squirrel. In 2013 I became a full time ranger with the PDRSG working the Ullswater and Haweswater area.

Are there any specific skills you need for the job, if so what are they?

For the job itself, you do require a good understanding of woodland and wildlife dynamics. Knowing what habitat both the red and grey squirrel thrives in, which habitat they target to live in (for food and shelter) and their seasonal behaviour patterns is key. The ability to get up, be alert and be in the woods by first light is also very important!

What are the best bits and the worst bits of your job?

There aren’t worst bits as such to the job itself, the only thing that impacts on you is when you get a report of a sick or road kill red. The best bits are being out in the woods every day, come rain, wind or shine. Being sat quietly at first light monitoring the woods for squirrels, seeing the wildlife that has been up all night (like badgers) shuffling off to bed and the diurnal creatures just stirring to start their day foraging is always a joy.

Red squirrels are known for being very elusive – what do they do all day whilst hiding away from us?

During the late spring, summer and early autumn months, the red squirrels are up and out of their dreys (nests) as early as 4am. By mid-morning they will be well fed and have had several hours of interacting with the other red squirrels, often disappearing back up in to the trees for a siesta. They can be seen, (if you are lucky enough!) to be dosing through the afternoon heat high in the canopy tucked in against the trunk of the tree. By late afternoon they will return to feed before they once again turn in for the night.

During late autumn and winter, they will be busy burying (storing) the natural food the woods and forests have produced – again being up at first light, but will be active through the whole day. If the natural crop has failed, or there is very little around (and the winter weather is particularly bad) they may often just stay tucked up safe and warm in their dreys for the day.

" My favourite thing about red squirrels is their ear tufts! Unlike the non native grey squirrel, red squirrels grow ear tufts in the late autumn and will have a full ‘set’ by winter to keep their ears warm."
- Christian Bensaid

What are the best things to look out for to know if there is a red squirrel nearby?

The first signs to look for are squirrel dreys. These are normally ¾’s of the way up the tree, made out of twigs. They are about the size of a football and, unlike a birds nest, will be a complete ‘ball’ of twigs. The red squirrels build them tight up against the trunk of the tree and one squirrel can build several dreys in one area.

Another good sign to look for are feeding signs. Red squirrels love pine cones, so if you look at the base of a pine tree you may be lucky to find chewed pine cones that will be completely stripped of its scales so just the ‘core’ of the cone is left.

What are the main reasons behind the decline in red squirrels and do you think this could be reversed in time?

There have been two major impacts on our native red squirrel. The first is habitat loss – due to deforestation the red squirrel has lost a lot of its natural habitat. The second, but more devastating reason was the introduction of the non native grey squirrel back in 1876. Unfortunately the grey squirrels brought with them a virus called the ‘Parapox’. The greys are carriers of the virus and it doesn’t affect them, but when the grey comes in close proximity of our native red, the red can catch the virus which is fatal to them. Greys are bigger and stronger also, and can out compete the reds for the natural food when it crops, often leading to starvation for the red squirrel. These have, and continue to be the biggest threats to our native red squirrel.

For over 23 years now work has been carried out around the Penrith & District area when the grey squirrels first started encroaching in to Cumbria. Reds had been lost from many areas, with locals reporting they had all but gone. Today this has been reversed. Work continues to keep the grey squirrel away and reds are once again repopulating woods and forests they had not so long ago, vanished from. It is certainly possible to keep the reds we have left safe – as long as the work continues to keep the non native grey squirrel away.

What is the best thing people can do in order to help the red squirrels?

Support your local red squirrel group by becoming a member and volunteer if you can. Donations are always welcome too. The more people out there looking for reds and greys and reporting their findings to their local group, the more we will be able to protect the reds we have left.