AN INTERNATIONAL red squirrels expert is calling for a shake-up of Natural Resources Wales over what he describes as a “conflict of interest” within the organisation.

Dr Craig Shuttleworth, from Bangor University, has spent 28 years working to save the endangered mammal in Wales. He is accusing NRW of failing the protected red squirrel population of Ynys Môn by clear-felling trees within their natural habitats, without having collected the necessary data beforehand.

Natural Resources Wales was formed in 2013 when the Environment Agency Wales, Countryside Council of Wales and Forestry Commission Wales merged.

Its purpose is to “pursue sustainable management of natural resources in relation to Wales” and “apply the principles of sustainable management of natural resources,” according to the Environment (Wales) Act 2016.

For years, Dr Shuttleworth had worked closely with NRW to maintain the island’s red squirrel population, but says he will no longer do so until changes are made within the organisation.

“In previous meetings with NRW, I pushed for red squirrel monitoring and for them not to harvest timber until they gathered the proper data,” he said.

“This hasn’t happened though. So on Anglesey, they have no idea where the red squirrels are, or whether clear-felling 10 or 20 hectares will have a minor impact on the population or an absolutely devastating one.

“Newborough and Pentraeth are the biggest blocks of woodland on the island so they have a value in conservation terms. Unfortunately, they also have a monetary value in terms of timber.

“NRW hasn’t spent a single penny on red squirrel monitoring so how could they possibly understand the impact of clear-felling the trees?”

Dr Shuttleworth submitted a freedom of information request to Natural Resources Wales in late March. In it he asked for the organisation’s species expert guidance on red squirrel population monitoring on Welsh Government holdings on Ynys Môn.

Responding to the FOI, NRW said, “There are no NRW guidance documents on red squirrel population monitoring on Welsh Government holdings on Anglesey.

Future monitoring, which is being implemented following recommendations from the latest UKWAS audit, will use the Forestry Commission England document Practical Techniques for Surveying and Monitoring Squirrels as its basis.

READ MORE: Cofiwch Dryweryn: Where now for Wales in the United Kingdom?

“As part of the planning process for the clear-fell operation for the hydrological trial area in Newborough, NRW did produce a method statement specifically for red squirrel.

“The absence of NRW guidance on this topic can partly be explained by the understanding that it would be, through agreement with Wales Squirrel Forum, the responsibility of local groups to undertake squirrel population monitoring.”

In the FOI, Dr Shuttleworth also requested the specific NRW annual budget for the years 2010-2021 for red squirrel population monitoring at Newborough forest, Pentraeth and Cefni woodlands.

NRW said in response that it did not hold the information: “there had been no budget specifically set for that purpose of monitoring red squirrel populations in the detailed sites.

“As part of core job responsibilities, a number of NRW staff have responsibility for the management of protected species, including red squirrels,” it added. This responsibility includes providing advice on mitigating the effect of any operations and activities on the WGWE, where any protected species has been identified”.

In a statement given to The National, Ian Sachs, Natural Resources Wales forest operations team leader, said:“Managing the Welsh Government Woodland Estate (WGWE) is one of our key responsibilities. At the heart of our approach is balancing the environmental, social and economic benefits of forests.

READ MORE: National Sheep Association appeals to dog owners as attacks hit new high

“Our harvesting operations take full account of the presence of and possible impact on any protected species, including red squirrels and their habitat, and the work is planned and timed accordingly, in line with our Forest Design Plan.

“We work to enhance the habitat through carefully selecting the trees we remove. We always ensure that the remaining habitat structure allows squirrels the aerial corridors they need to move around the forest.

“Newborough forest is suffering from Dothistroma septosporum or red band needle blight in pines. Light thinning helps combat the effect of the disease and increase the longevity of the existing trees.”

The NRW statement also lists the benefits of selective thinning of trees, which it says include:

  •  Encouraging the remaining healthy trees to have deeper and stronger crowns or canopies, thus providing a greater food source.
  • Allowing light and warmth to the forest floor to stimulate regeneration of species.
  • Allowing for diversity of forest structure that benefits a range of wildlife species.
  • Increasing tree species through natural regeneration or enrichment practices.Ensuring that aerial corridors are protected for the lifespan of the crop.

However, Dr Shuttleworth, who has published research in the journal ‘Forest Ecology and Management’ looking specifically at red band needle blight, refutes the NRW statement, describing it as “complete cobblers”.

“NRW does not have to thin that canopy this year because of red band needle blight,” said Dr Shuttleworth. “If anything, the disease causes incremental damage; in other words, it slows the growth rate in those trees. But it kills younger trees.

“And they have a large area of young trees at Newborough; these are plantation crops that are perhaps 20 years old and haven’t been thinned before and they’re all growing in together. They can get killed by red band needle blight. But NRW isn’t thinning them and the reason for that is that they can’t make any money from them.

“Those trees are becoming a big problem for the crop because they sit there year after year suffering from the infection. If they were good forest managers, they would be thinning those crops out early to allow air to move.

“The canopy is already thin enough and has enough air movement. They’re not going to change the amount of red band needle blight in that crop.

“What NRW is doing is ignoring the impact upon red squirrels by saying that the red band needle blight is their priority,” he argues.

The National contacted the recently re-elected Senedd Member for Ynys Môn, Rhun ap Iorwerth, who said: “The red squirrel is hugely important to us on Anglesey.”

He added that just before the recent election he had raised concerns with NRW about the impact of the felling of trees on the island on the squirrel population.

“I’ve now received a response saying any felling is compliant with legislation and guidance.

“However, it’s clear that concerns persist, and I’ll be pursuing the matter further with NRW, seeking assurances about conservation measures being put in place, and encouraging meaningful consultation with conservation groups,” he said.