Squirreling away to save our native species
This week marks Red Squirrel Awareness Week. The Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) has been part of the UK’s native wildlife for 10 000 years, however we have seen a serious decline in their numbers in more recent years. It is estimated that there are now only about 140 000 Red squirrels in the UK and these are confined to small areas including parts of Scotland, the Lake District, and the coastline near Liverpool. This is mainly due to the introduction of their bigger American cousins the Eastern Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). These are the squirrels you are probably more used to seeing in parks and gardens. However Grey squirrels did not use to live in the UK, they found their way over here by hiding in boats leaving America in the 1800s. By 1876 they were a common sight in UK gardens and we soon considered part of British wildlife, and now there are over 2.5 million Greys in the UK.
Lots of people enjoy watching Grey squirrels in their gardens today but they do have a more sinister side. Grey squirrels carry a virus called squirrel-pox which does not affect their health but is lethal to Red squirrels causing them to die of dehydration and starvation in just a few weeks. This is now considered the main reason for the huge decline in Red squirrel numbers across the UK. Many conservation organisations are working hard to protect Red squirrels but the only way they can achieve this is to keep Red and Grey squirrels away from each other. This means that any Grey squirrel sighting in a Red squirrel area must be reported to the Wildlife Trust or National Trust so traps can be set to remove the Greys. Although this may seem cruel there is no current cure for squirrel-pox meaning we must keep Red squirrels away from any risk of infection.
Have a look for Red squirrels in these areas https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/top-places-to-spot-red-squirrels and keep your eyes out for our fluffy friends. Although they are shy you are more likely to see them into the autumn as they forage for food. Red squirrels will eat nuts, berries, fruit, birds’ eggs, and insects. Watch carefully when they are eating as, interestingly, squirrels can be right- or left-handed just like people!
Written by: Dr. Jess Mitchell, S4TP Programme Coordinator, North England & Scotland
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solutions for the Planet Ltd.