As a child, Helen Butler always loved being outdoors in the countryside. She grew up on the Isle of Wight, playing with friends in local woodland and riding the bridleways as a teenager.
But she never imagined the part she would come to play in the conservation of the creatures that call that woodland their home.
A lifelong animal lover and horse devotee, Helen fell into protecting red squirrels entirely by chance. “I had joined the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers to help with a small mammal survey on the island,” she says. “We had to examine hazelnut shells and work out which animals had been eating them, from the way the nuts had been cracked open.
“The results of those surveys in 1991, following a bad storm that January, suggested that red squirrel numbers had plummeted. I wanted to change that.”
Helen’s friends showed her how to write professional reports on her research, but she soon felt out of her depth.
“People were calling me an expert when I wasn’t!” she says. “Land owners wanted my guidance, so I enrolled for a degree at the Open University. That spurred me on to take extra courses in teaching, media and publishing, which all helped me raise awareness through talks, leaflets and even through children’s storybooks.”
Helen set up the Wight Squirrel Project in 1993, and the Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Trust shortly afterwards. The Project is funded by Helen, whereas the Trust is a registered charity.
“They run in tandem, but having a registered charity means we can have a shop – and land –and apply for more funding, so I get the best of both worlds for the squirrels,” Helen explains. “I always have a Plan B!”
Ever since then, she has helped protect red squirrels and other wildlife on the Isle of Wight. As Project Manager she works seven days a week, spending most of her time monitoring red squirrel activity, as well as creating safe passage across roads by reopening woodland corridors.
“We observe in a non-invasive way, with cameras,” says Helen. “We’re always on the lookout for new sightings, or the need to improve road crossings.
Suspending hoppers of food between trees encourages wildlife to climb up and cross the road that way.”
It was mainly human interference that caused the decline in red squirrels on the island, which is why this work is so important to Helen. “That’s what drove me to keep going and here we are, 25 years later,” she says.
“It’s such rewarding work. Red squirrels are so charismatic, and real sweeties when they’re little.” Just this year Helen has hand-reared two babies in need of her help: little Vic (found on Victoria Street) and Robyn (discovered on Robin Hill). She fed each of them by hand and temporarily housed them in a purpose-built aviary in her garden.
“They’re not timid at that age. In fact they can be quite naughty!” Helen laughs. “But that’s part of their charm. And they’ll play
with you, like they would with their brothers and sisters in the wild. Times like that make it
Red squirrel conservation also means keeping grey squirrels away, because they spread diseases the reds cannot fight. “We have to be vigilant because squirrels are good swimmers,” says Helen. “Greys have often tried to come from the mainland.
“So far though, most island sightings of ‘grey’ squirrels have been reds with dark coats. People think they’ve seen a grey but, so long as the squirrel has tufty ears, it’s definitely a red.”
But thanks to all her years of hard work, the fruits of Helen’s labours are finally starting to show. Red squirrel numbers reached a peak in 2010 and this year the Trust has opened a shop in Ryde High Street.
“2015 has been really exciting. We now have a base where people can drop in, share information and buy products handmade by volunteers.”
It’s no wonder Helen received a Special Award from the UK’s Red Squirrel Survival Trust in 2012, and an MBE for Services to Red Squirrels in 2013. “But I don’t have time to reflect on the charity’s successes,” she continues. “Now we need support more than ever, because the shop has to pay for itself, otherwise we can’t keep it on. And there’s a lot more to do. I’d like to get another piece of woodland, make it sustainable, and have another base there, for more group visits.”
In the meantime, volunteers run drop-in sessions at the shop in Ryde, including natural history talks and hedgehog visits.
For those of us not on the island, Helen urges us to register as a Friend of the Red Squirrels to show our support. “If readers are interested, I can send them a DVD – they just need to include a couple of pounds for postage. We’re not just after money, we like to raise awareness too.”