Saving UK Red Squirrels … too little too late?
For the vast majority of my life I have lived in the Lake District, UK. Admittedly for most of my younger years I resented living in what I called “the middle of nowhere”, but as I grew up I began to appreciate its beauty. As well as the fantastic world renowned views, the Lake District is home to some amazing wildlife. Growing up in an environment where seeing wild deer, badgers, foxes etc every day is the norm has had a clear influence on my future career. When I was very young I remember seeing one animal in particular in the woods opposite my school almost every day. That animal was the Red Squirrel.
The woods in my village are home to one of the last populations of Red Squirrel in the UK. Despite this, I can’t remember seeing one since I left that primary school 9 years ago. It is thought there are less than 140,000 Red squirrels left in the UK, 85% of which are in Scotland. Thank fully there are people up and down the country dedicated to maintaining, and hopefully increasing population numbers.
In the UK Red Squirrels are an endangered species and are estimated to be extinct in less than a decade, unless things drastically change. General practice is to blame the Grey (or Gray, dependant on region) Squirrel for the Red’s demise, however this is a little unfair. An estimated 60% of the Grey population carry the Squirrel pox virus like a reservoir – this virus is in all known cases, fatal to the Red Squirrels 4-5 days after infection. Grey squirrels were first introduced to the UK from America in the 1870s and the first Squirrel pox virus case in Cumbria was recorded in 1998.
Contrary to one of my previous statements, grey squirrels are not entirely blameless in the situation. The Greys are much quicker to strip an area of natural resources such as bark, wild bird’s eggs and fledglings, and eat 7 times as much food compared to the Reds. In fact, Red Squirrels are held so close to the hearts of UK citizens that Greys are officially classed as vermin in the UK. It is illegal to release Greys into the wild once caught, to treat for illness or injury and illegal to keep in captivity without licence.
Westmorland Red Squirrel Society
The Westmorland Red Squirrel Society (WRSS) was formed in 2005 and is the group responsible for the Red Squirrels in the woods by my village, and in the whole of South East Cumbria. They aim to raise awareness about the threats facing Red Squirrels, as well as eliminating those threats and therefore increase survival and population numbers.
As mentioned previously, the biggest threat to the Reds is the squirrel pox virus, as well as the competition with Greys for food and habitat. The solutions the WRSS present are to protect the Reds by controlling the Greys and keeping the two populations separate. Co-existing will in all cases result in the Reds being displaced by the Greys, until Grey populations can be controlled.
Is there any hope?
For some it may seem that there is no hope for the Reds, and that their extinction is inevitable, and from the above information I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. However a paper from Animal Conservation claims in 2000 there were 4 Reds in a group of 140 that had an antibody to the virus. While I can’t find any papers with more up to date figures, it is promising that there is a resistance present in the Reds population. With the work of groups such as the WRSS perhaps the Greys can be held off long enough for the resistance to become dominant through the Red Squirrel population. However, I fear that it may take too long, and the Greys may have displaced too many Reds by that stage. I hope that the work of groups such as WRSS gain the support they deserve, and manage to save this animal from extinction, before it is too late.
Sainsbury, A. W. et al. (2000). “Grey squirrels have high seroprevalence to a parapoxvirus associated with deaths in red squirrels.” Animal Conservation 3: 229-233.
WRSS – http://westmorlandredsquirrels.org.uk/