Photographer Toni Cross went to the Yorkshire Dales for a few weeks at the beginning of 2021, and ended up staying for two months. Her support bubble during England's third lock down ended up being a bunch of Red Squirrels!
It isn’t the most obvious of places. Through a farm gate, on a remote stretch of the road from Hawes to Ingleton. Head up a steep roadway across rough pasture land, dotted with sheep and with kestrels hovering overhead, and enter a different world. Another farm gate and a sign mark the start of the Snaizeholme Red Squirrel Trail, and if you haven’t been here before you are in for a treat.
Fifteen years or so ago scientists were speculating that Red Squirrels would eventually only survive on islands. However, with a helping hand from a number of conservation organisations, and funding from schemes such as Countryside Stewardship, Red Squirrels are now thriving in a number of strongholds, including the area around Hawes, Widdale and Mirk Pot Woods. Although squirrels can be spotted in other places, including the village of Hawes itself, the trail at Mirk Pot has become justifiably famous due to a combination of easy access, a concentrated population and some very tame squirrels!
In the January of 2021 most of us didn’t know quite what to do with ourselves. Another lockdown loomed, and no one seemed to know quite how long this one might last. Four days before the lockdown started I arrived in Hawes, intending to capture images of local wildlife, sheep and cattle for my 2022 Calendar range. In the event, given the lockdown and an accommodating holiday cottage landlady, I ended up staying for two months.
My strategy for pandemic photography was pretty simple, see more animals than people and stay within a self imposed range of Hawes which allowed me to head back to the cottage for food and comfort breaks and avoid interacting as much as possible. Although the need to work meant that I could travel, it seemed only fair to a rural community which proved both welcoming and hospitable to behave in a responsible manner. Fortunately Snaizeholme was within the adopted area, and unlike in warmer summer months, empty of people. Apart from a few locals and a friendly pair of resident dogs, I saw virtually no one here during a number of visits. This inevitably meant that I had a number of slightly one sided conversations with squirrels!
The Reds here are well used to being fed. Peanut feeders are available in local gardens and a scattering of peanut shells gives away the favourite spots for visitors popping down a few extra treats. The feeding of animals to obtain better photos is a contentious issue. Some people feel it is never right to feed animals, others do so frequently and sometimes not very ethically. I try to walk a middle path. I don’t believe animals should be too habituated to human food, or encouraged to come too close. At the same time, where animals are already fed regularly by visitors and used to human contact, it is hard to see how a little helping hand does much harm. In the case of the squirrels I chose to turn up with a small ration of peanuts on each visit, and put them down and step away to a sensible distance as much as possible. This didn’t always work, on a couple of occasions I had squirrels approach and check out my pockets for treats whilst I was sitting on the ground, and it was fairly common for them to run up my leg and stare at me hopefully!
Lighting in the depths of conifer woodland is something of a challenge. The sun finds it hard to penetrate far into the woods here and capturing images on the edges is the most successful strategy. A couple of clear fell areas in the middle of the woodland have been cut to encourage new tree growth and provide understory vegetation, and these are good for photographing in better light, the squirrels will often take food from the more wooded area and bury it around fallen and felled wood, making it a bit easier to see and photograph them out in the open. I soon found a favourite tree to sit under, and log to sit on, at the edge of the clear fell. Sometimes sitting under the tree, dressed in a camouflage jacket and keeping still and quiet for some time caught a squirrel by surprise. The sudden appearance of a squirrel overhead, or beside me, chuntering in disapproval, was the result of being just a little too quiet!
Towards the end of February the light began to improve a little and some nice sunlit days on the edge of the wood were a better chance to photograph squirrels in motion, and in some nice patches of sunlight. They didn’t have too much interest in the standard photographer’s method of getting up early for the best light though. In the winter at least these guys are not early risers. Red Squirrels don’t hibernate, but they do hoard food for the winter and can be active for quite a short time, especially on cold days. Even on a good day it was unusual to see a squirrel much before 10am, and, for several days during a particularly cold snap, they vanished altogether.
Several old stone walls run though the woodland and provide shelter, and a convenient highway across the woodland floor for the squirrels and other animals. These ancient moss covered walls were also a great place to take photos of squirrels running and leaping from stone to stone, and it was the walls which first provided a glimpse of another resident mammal.
Snow sat on the Dales hills for most of that winter, and Stoats often turn white in winter to help camouflage themselves against the snow. Known as Ermine stoats, these white winter mustelids can change colour completely except for their black tail tip, or sometimes still have some brown markings. Their white coats made them easy to spot against the walls, and the angry chattering of squirrels also often highlighted their location. Although I saw them most days, they moved fast and stayed concealed much of the time, so photographic opportunities were infrequent, until one day when a stoat leapt over a wall close to me. I sat quietly on a section of fallen wall and squeaked a little, and the animal came closer and popped it’s head out to have a look at me. A magical close encounter with an elusive mammal, and one I never managed again despite many patient hours.
At the end of February I left Hawes and the squirrels behind to move on to other work, as the end of lockdown came nearer. I’m scheduled to be back in the Dales for several weeks in August and early September though, so if you visit the squirrels in the summer you might catch a glimpse of me sitting under a tree with my camera. I will probably still be chatting to squirrels, having not quite got the hang of ‘normality’ yet!
How To Visit
The easiest way to visit the Squirrel trail now that lockdown is ended is with the help of the Little White Bus. https://www.littlewhitebus.co.uk/red-squirrels/ The bus runs daily from the Hawes Countryside Museum and the driver will take you right to the start of the trail and pick you up again a couple of hours later.
There are also a couple of parking spaces at the top of the trail. These cost £5 and must be prebooked with the National Park Visitor Centre on 01969 666210. It is possible to park on the main road and walk, but parking is very limited and can be a problem for locals, please don’t block drives or local parking spaces.
There is a steep initial descent down steps into the wood which requires walking boots or other sturdy footwear and can be muddy or slippery. Children should manage it if supervised but it is obviously a difficult spot for elderly or disabled visitors. For anyone with mobility issues, booking a parking space and spending a little time watching the feeders outside Mirk Pot House should result in plenty of sightings though.
My two months with the squirrels resulted in a number of prints and cards, and also a 2022 Red Squirrel calendar, which are available from the Licky Cow Gallery website here: www.lickycow.gallery