Wondermum Tortoiseshell’s red squirrel survival legacy lives on

Just Regional
May 3, 2016 3 mins read

Prolific red squirrel ‘wondermum’ Tortoiseshell has died at the grand old age of nine – but the endearing little creature’s mega-maternal spirit lives on at Norfolk’s Pensthorpe Natural Park.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Tortoiseshell’s latest great-grand kittens have just emerged into the spring sunshine at the north Norfolk wildlife haven, injecting fresh hope into the campaign to save the red squirrel from extinction in the UK.

The first few weeks of their lives will be crucial to their survival and the kittens are yet to be named. If all goes well, the latest generation of endangered reds to be born at Pensthorpe will become part of the East Anglian Red Squirrel Group breeding programme.

During her lifetime, Tortoiseshell gave birth to 50 kittens. Many of these have been resettled all over the United Kingdom as part of release and captive breeding projects introduced to halt the alarming decline in the population of Britain’s only native species of squirrel. 

Since 2008, when Tortoiseshell had her first litter, a good number of her offspring have been sent to the Anglesey as part of a hugely successful programme to repopulate the Welsh island with reds. A population of less than 40 has grown to more than 700 now.

One of nature’s most delightful and engaging creatures, red squirrels were once a common sight in conifer forests across the country. Tree felling and the introduction of grey squirrels 150 years ago, have been blamed for a drastic decline in the population. Grey squirrels now outnumber reds by 20-1.

While a few pockets of woodland still support small communities of red squirrels in England and Wales, the last stronghold of the species is Scotland. But as a grey squirrel wave sweeps northwards, it carries with it a disease which is deadly to their red cousins – and some conservationists predict the species could be wiped out in a generation.

But tiny Tortoiseshell had done everything she could to ensure survival of her species. 

“She really was a national treasure,” said Chrissie Kelley, Head of Species Management at Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, and co-ordinator for the East Anglian Red Squirrel Group. “Tortoiseshell was a wonder-mum of the squirrel world. She produced litter upon litter of kittens and was a fantastic mother to all her kittens.”

Tortoiseshell’s mothering instinct even overcame the death of her partner, Tweedledum, and she paired up with a new partner, Bryn, to produce more litters.


Ms Kelley said: “Red squirrels only survive in a handful of locations in the UK. We are proud that Pensthorpe is one of those places. We have had pairs breeding successfully here since 1998.”

Pensthorpe’s breeding pairs of red squirrels occupy three purpose-made enclosures, built around existing trees and linked by overhead runs. It is the perfect environment in which to encourage red squirrels to breed and look after their young safely before they are either moved on to reinforce declining populations in other parts of the country. 

“We think it is important that visitors have the opportunity to see these beautiful little creatures and, at the same time, learn about the plight of the red squirrel and the attempts to save it in Britain,” said Ms Kelley.

Pensthorpe Red Squirrels

Pensthorpe Red Squirrels

Pensthorpe Red Squirrels

Pensthorpe Red Squirrels

Pensthorpe Red Squirrels

Pensthorpe Red Squirrels

Pensthorpe Red Squirrels

More of what's happening in the News