From left, Helen Butler, Bob and Jacquie Wilson and Dave Dana. Picture by Richard Wright.
RED squirrel numbers have plummeted to their lowest total since an Isle of Wight charity was formed to protect them 20 years ago.
News that numbers had dropped to about 2,000 from a peak of 3,500 was delivered at an event to mark two decades of the Wight Squirrel Project.
Project founder Helen Butler, who was recently awarded the MBE in recognition of her work, said: "Our woodland monitoring has shown depressing results. I have never before known nil sightings in both Borthwood and Bouldnor woodland."
When "road kills" reduce, that is a sure sign of low population numbers and Helen has noticed a marked reduction in those reports.
Deaths of squirrels crossing roads, disease passed on by cats, which also hunt squirrels, and buzzards taking them are all blamed for the population fall.
She doesn’t yet know whether it is just a cyclical dip in numbers or a part of steady decline.
Helen said: "Much of the information about protected buzzards taking squirrels is anecdotal but there has been filmed evidence of the much larger greys being taken on the mainland and first-hand sightings on the Island.
"One red was taken by a buzzard at a squirrel feeding station and it was directly witnessed, so there is no doubt about it," said Helen.
At an American supper held to celebrate the project and its work, Helen presented a trophy to honour volunteers to Jacquie and Bob Wilson, from Seaview.
Jacquie takes in orphaned and injured squirrels and nurses them to health, before releasing them back into the wild.
The trophy had been held by volunteer woodland monitoring trainer Dave Dana.
The supper was held at Newnham Farm, Binstead, the home of John and Di Cleaver, who do much to create squirrel-friendly habitat.