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CONSERVATIONISTS have begun a cull of grey squirrels to help native red squirrels expand their territory in the Yorkshire Dales.

About 30 greys have been killed so far in woodland between Hawes and Bainbridge, in Wensleydale.

It is hoped the cull will encourage red squirrels living in woods west of Hawes to move down the dale.

The initiative has been launched by Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE), a group which aims to increase numbers of red squirrels in the region.

Nick Mason, project manager, said: “We are putting down a number of cage traps in woodland between Hawes and Bainbridge that will allow us to trap and humanely kill grey squirrels.

“The rationale is that by removing the greys, it will allow the reds some woodland to expand into.”

The scheme began in June and will continue until August.

The cull is being undertaken by gamekeepers from the Swinithwaite Estate, in Wensleydale.

Mr Mason said red squirrels were once widespread in the Dales, however their habitats were taken over by the more adaptable greys.

The cull could eventually be expanded farther down Wensleydale towards Leyburn if it proves successful, added Mr Mason.

Earlier this year, volunteers from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority monitored woodland in the area for signs of red squirrels.

Further checks will be carried out in the autumn to test the success of the cull.

Members of the public are also being urged to notify RSNE of red squirrel sightings in the Hawes and Bainbridge area.

Information can be reported online at rsne.org.uk The work to increase the number of red squirrels is being helped by Yorkshire Dales wildlife photographer Simon Phillpotts.

Mr Phillpotts, who owns a wood in the area, has released a new limited edition canvas print and pledged all profits to the group.

It is hoped that at least £5,000 will be raised from the sale of the 125 prints showing a red squirrel foraging for food among the cones of a Dales pine forest.

The print can be bought from wilddales.co.uk and can be viewed at the Dales Countryside Museum, in Hawes, or West Burton village shop, near Leyburn.