The red squirrel, a native of the UK, has been fighting an explosion of grey squirrels which were introduced from North America in the late nineteenth century. The grey squirrel takes over the red squirrel’s habitat, breeds more prolifically and eventually displaces it. Nowadays, the number of red squirrels left is estimated at around 210,000 while grey squirrels number over 2.5 million. In many parts of the country, the red squirrel has disappeared. More than half of the red squirrels are to be found in Scotland with the rest in Northern Ireland and scattered in pockets in Wales and the North of England.
The red squirrel is smaller than the grey and its colour can vary depending on the area and the season. In summer, its coat can have a coppery tinge while in winter, it is darker with grey patches. It has distinctive ear tufts particularly in winter. The fur on its underside is usually white or cream. As some grey squirrels develop reddish patches it can be difficult to distinguish between them.
The red squirrel lives in forested areas, building nests or dreys, high up in the forks of branches. They may have several dreys which are lined with moss and dried grass and which provide sleeping accommodation and shelter. The young are also raised here, a mother usually having two or three babies. It feeds on tree seeds such as pine cones, acorns and beech mast but also eats buds, shoots, berries and the eggs of small birds. It does not hibernate in winter, instead storing surplus food either below ground or in trees. It mainly stays high up in the tree canopy and can be hard to spot; signs to look for are sounds of falling debris from squirrels eating, particularly around beech trees or pines, and chewed pine cones that look like apple cores.
Disease has also played its part. The grey squirrel carries the squirrel poxvirus which has proved deadly to the red and there are moves afoot to protect the red squirrel. It is now on the World Conservation Union’s 2003 Red List of Threatened Species and classified as being Near Threatened. There are several local initiatives attempting to stop the spread of the grey. The National Trust is working along with others to keep Brownsea Island in Dorset and the Isle of Wight free of grey squirrels. In Anglesey, grey squirrel controls have been in operation since 1998 and it is hoped that by 2010, no grey squirrels will be left in the area.
The Scottish Squirrel Survey, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, monitors both red and grey squirrels to update information on the spread and distribution of both species.
As the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended) prohibits the transport or release of grey squirrels back into woodland, this means that the only way of eradicating the grey is by humane killing. This has caused some controversy in parts of the country.
However, there is a faint glimmer of hope for the red squirrel. Recent research by the Zoological Society of London has discovered that some red squirrels have developed antibodies to the squirrel poxvirus and it may be possible in the future to produce a vaccine against the disease.
It would be a shame if our native red squirrels were to disappear completely from our shores, but how to stop the spread of the grey remains problematic