The Prince of Wales has expressed his affection for the “inquisitive and delightful” character of the red squirrel as he praised the volunteers fighting for the creature’s survival.
Heir to the throne Charles, who was marking Red Squirrel Appreciation Day, has written a letter to those working to prevent the decline of the red squirrel population.
The prince, who is patron of Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST), is known for letting the animals run around his Birkhall home on the Queen’s Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire.
He even leaves nuts in the pockets of his jackets, left hanging on chairs, for the squirrels to find.
Charles heralded the thousands of volunteers, who are part of a network of more than 100 local groups across the UK.
Described by RSST as the “eyes and ears on the ground”, they are behind conservation projects such as feeding the squirrels, monitoring trial cameras, looking for signs of squirrel pox disease, checking red and grey squirrel populations, and setting up squirrel boxes and also squirrel ropes which allow the creatures to safely cross above busy roads.
The prince wrote in his letter: “Without your efforts, we simply could not hope to succeed in the task we have set ourselves.
“Generations to come would be denied the pleasure we take for granted in the healthy woods that are now threatened as never before, and of which the red squirrel is both the symbol and, by its presence, the benchmark.
“As you will all know so well, these charming and intelligent creatures never fail to delight. I take enormous pleasure in having them around – and in! – the house when I am at home in Scotland.
“They are such inquisitive and delightful characters; they have even been known to hunt down a few of their favourite nuts left out in an unguarded jacket pocket!”
He added: “I am so very grateful to all of you, as volunteers, for the crucial role you play in this ongoing battle to protect and restore a precious part of our natural heritage.
“This brings you all my warmest good wishes, together with every possible encouragement for the task ahead.”
There are now less than 140,000 red squirrels in the UK and RSST has warned they will be extinct within 10 years without action to protect them.
Stephen Trotter, a trustee of RSST, said the prince’s continued support helped shine a light on the important work.
“It is truly heartening to read of the passion and fondness in which this most iconic species is held,” he said.
Mr Trotter added: “It is these local red squirrel groups and their volunteers who undertake 80% of the conservation activity which is so critical to the survival of red squirrels on the mainland.
“Indeed, it is their hard work and commitment that is largely responsible for saving the species from inevitable extinction in those parts of the British Isles where it still survives despite the presence and expansion of grey squirrels.”
Grey squirrels, which arrived from North America in the 19th century, now outnumber native red squirrels by more than 15 to one.
They have out-competed the reds for resources and food, and carry a disease which affects their smaller neighbours.