Greys have long outperformed our native squirrels for food and territory. How can we give red squirrels a sporting chance? Camilla Swift investigates
Camilla Swift looks at the schemes in place to help red squirrels survive — and what you can do to help.
A sky filled with shrieking, swooping swifts is one of the true delights of summer. But it is one we need to work hard to protect, says David Tomlinson.
RED SQUIRRELS: HOW THEY CAN BE SAVED
In the 14th century, Chaucer wrote of ‘squyrels and bestes smale of gentil kynde’; in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare refers to Queen Mab, whose ‘chariot is an empty hazelnut/ Made by the joiner squirrel’; and perhaps the most famous literary squirrel is Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. Then there’s William Morris, who used the red squirrel to liven up his tapestries; even today, the image of the tufty-eared red squirrel is used on everything from tea towels to cereal packets. For as long as people have inhabited the British Isles, the inquisitive, scampering squirrel has lived alongside them.
But while a visitor from the 17th century would recognise Potter’s description and drawings of Nutkin as the squirrel they knew, they might not connect him to the now-ubiquitous grey-coated creatures that tourists feed in London parks or that steal from the bird-feeders in one’s garden. The grey squirrel that exists in huge numbers across much of England was introduced from the US in the 19th century and has pushed the red squirrel out of most of its old domains. The UK’s grey squirrel population sits at around 2.7 million; conversely, the red squirrel has seen its numbers plummet from a high of about 3.5 million to between 120,000 and 160,000.
By all accounts, there wasn’t one single release that led to this invasion; rather, a number of animals were released from private collections. The first verified release was in 1876, when a pair of greys that he had brought back from the States were released by Thomas V Brocklehurst in Henbury Park in Cheshire. Of course, not all of the blame can be laid on Brocklehurst.
Dr Lisa Signorile, for her PhD at Imperial College London, compiled a DNA database of nearly 1,500 grey squirrels in the UK and Italy. She came to the conclusion that Herbrand Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford, had a large part to play in their spread across the British Isles. As well as releasing greys at Woburn, he presented them to his friends as gifts. These were then released in at least seven locations in the UK and Ireland. A hundred grey squirrels were released into Richmond Park in 1902; in Regent’s Park, 91 were released between 1905 and 1907. It didn’t take long for the grey squirrel to make itself at home in English woodland. The problem was soon recognised. In 1937, the Grey Squirrels (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order was issued, making it illegal to keep grey squirrels in captivity. But by then it was far too late.
If the red squirrels and the greys could live in harmony, there wouldn’t be a problem – but they can’t. Firstly, grey squirrels can live in higher densities than reds; it has been estimated that each red squirrel requires one hectare of woodland, whereas seven to 10 grey squirrels can live in the same area. The higher squirrel densities require more food, and greys can eat some things the reds can’t, such as acorns and less mature plants. The greys are stronger and larger, meaning the reds are out-competed on all fronts. Grey squirrels can also carry squirrel pox, and though many greys are asymptomatic an outbreak among red squirrels can wipe out a local population. If grey squirrels are in a certain area, it is impossible for reds to thrive.
The conflict between the two species isn’t the only reason why grey squirrels are a pest. They cause devastating damage to woodland by stripping bark from tree trunks, which kills trees, particularly younger ones. As well as destroying the woodland habitat of red squirrels, this causes huge economic damage for landowners, forestry companies and public woodlands – particularly those with newly planted woods – and arboretums. A report published in February 2021 estimated that grey squirrels will cost the forestry sector £1.1 billion over the next 40 years. And, with tree planting forming a vital part of the Government’s net-zero strategy, the sheer population of grey squirrels in the UK could derail these plans.
“On our estate we have lost so many native trees to squirrel damage that we try to trap or shoot between 200 to 300 grey squirrels a year,” explains Lord Stafford of Swynnerton Park in Staffordshire. “But as soon as we create a vacuum other squirrels move in from the surrounding area, so we are fighting a losing battle. I and other landowners and farmers are desperately hoping that the contraceptive programme being currently developed for the male grey squirrel is a success. Otherwise, the Government’s plan for all of us to plant more trees to combat climate change will not succeed.”
As a supporter of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust’s work, Lord Stafford has been encouraging other woodland owners to get involved with their work, especially the grey squirrel fertility control programme. This development could enable the grey squirrel population to be controlled and allow the reds to regain a foothold. The reds currently exist only in Scotland and the border counties, and in small, unique pockets of land where the greys can’t get to them – such as the successful colonies on the Isle of Wight, Anglesey and Brownsea Island in Dorset. There’s no reason why they can’t expand their habitat into neighbouring areas – particularly in the North of England – but the problem is in ensuring there is enough habitat for them and that the greys are not there to push them out.
“We are winning the battle against the greys but before we can think about bringing the red back – which is where we want to head – we have to clear the greys,” explains Vanessa Fawcett of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST). “There is an enormous amount of work being done in counties like Cumbria and Yorkshire, where volunteers are fighting day in, day out to hold back that line of greys. The reality is that with the greys’ breeding rate, it’s a thankless and impossible task. So that’s where the fertility control concept came from.”
The contraceptive scheme is being promoted by the UK Squirrel Accord, a partnership of 41 groups and charities that was founded at the request of HRH The Prince of Wales. A huge advocate for red squirrels – and patron of the RSST – he has written in the past of how much he adores seeing them at his Scottish home, Birkhall. “These charming and intelligent creatures never fail to delight,” he wrote in a letter to RSST volunteers. “I take enormous pleasure in having them around – and in! – the house when I am at home in Scotland. They are such inquisitive and delightful characters.” His concern for their future led him to the idea of the UK Squirrel Accord. Many of the groups involved are tree-orientated organisations, rather than simply squirrel-related ones, concerned about the impact the greys are having on Britain’s woodland.
The idea is a simple one: to deliver an immunocontraceptive that could be delivered to grey squirrels across the country using a species-specific delivery mechanism. The mechanism takes the form of a specially developed hopper and the project is currently in the penultimate year of a five-year study. The hope is that this non-lethal management method – using a drug that is already in use in North America in white-tailed deer – will render the grey squirrels infertile, thus bringing their population down to a manageable level and allowing both red squirrels and broadleaf woodland to thrive.
There are places where reintroduction is possible; in the Highlands, where greys don’t exist, the Woodland Trust and Trees for Life have been reintroducing small populations of 20 or so reds at suitable sites. But with greys so abundant, there are few places where this is viable. It’s also vital that there are interlinking woodlands, so the reds are able to breed with neighbouring populations. In England, most broadleaf woodlands are fractured into small chunks, so reintroduced reds would have a limited gene pool.
Ideally, the grey squirrel fertility programme would achieve two aims: to allow the reds to expand into habitat currently occupied by greys; and to improve woodland health and natural biodiversity. “Being realistic, total eradication of the greys isn’t going to happen; there will always be areas where they exist and there are people who wouldn’t want to see them disappear,” says Fawcett. “But the aim would be to reintroduce the reds nationwide.”
In Cornwall, the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project (CRSP) has, over the past 10 years, proven that by trapping alone it can remove grey squirrels from the Lizard Peninsula. However, breeding a viable population of reds for release “has proven more challenging than originally thought”, says Sir Ferrers Vyvyan, a trustee of CRSP. “For a release on the Peninsula it is considered that there needs to be a genetically viable population of around 70 squirrels, and that is still some five years away. The immunocontraceptive programme for grey squirrels is also some five years away and so it seems sensible that the CRSP strategy is to aim for a release in circa 2026.”
In order to help deliver this strategy and engage fully with the local community, the CRSP has decided to fund, from this year, a five-year PhD placement via the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute to manage the project to the point of releasing reds into the wild. “Over the past 10 years the CRSP has shown that by adopting a scientific approach and following all national and international protocols a reintroduction of reds is very achievable and that with concerted effort we can, if we choose, see this iconic animal back in our countryside,” says Sir Ferrers.
What the red squirrels need us to do is set the stage for their comeback, from Cornwall to the Borders. To remove grey squirrels where we can and to improve England’s broadleaf woodland habitats, so there are homes ready and waiting for the reds to move back into. If we can achieve this, then who knows – future generations might well end up spotting Squirrel Nutkin in their local woodlands once again.
WHO IS HELPING THE RED SQUIRREL SURVIVE?
Red Squirrel Survival Trust
Formed at the behest of their patron, Prince Charles, in 2006, the Red Squirrel Survival Trust aims to protect and conserve the red squirrel in the UK. This is through raising awareness of the plight of red squirrels; volunteer and action groups; funding research into how to secure the long-term future of the red squirrel in the UK; encouraging successful populations of red squirrels through breeding programmes and reintroducing red squirrels where conditions are right; and, importantly, securing the red squirrel’s natural environment by ensuring our woodlands are healthy. At the moment, much of the Trust’s work is focused on delivering the grey squirrel fertility management programme through the UK Squirrel Accord. But another vital and ongoing task is education. Raising awareness of the reds and why they need our help is hugely important, as is encouraging discussion of their plight – such as the February 2020 House of Lords debate on Tree Pests and Diseases.
UK Squirrel Accord
Established in 2015, it consists of 41 leading nature conservation, woodland, heritage, timber and governmental organisations, who are working together to bring a coordinated approach to secure the future of both red squirrels and native woodland. Its work revolves around fundraising and supporting research into fertility control for grey squirrels, as well as engaging with landowners and local groups.
Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels
A partnership project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, it was set up in 2009 to ensure red squirrels continue to thrive in Scotland. Supported by National Lottery players, the partnership includes NatureScot, Scottish Forestry, Scottish Land & Estates, RSPB Scotland and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. The main focus is on combating the spread of grey squirrels. Targeted landscape-scale grey squirrel control has kept red squirrel populations stable across the country, and reds are returning to areas where they haven’t been seen for decades. Specific projects include work to remove an isolated population of grey squirrels that was introduced to Aberdeen in the 1970s, which then spread to the surrounding countryside. A successful trap-loan scheme enables local people to get involved and, today, eradication is considered achievable. Red squirrels are also returning to the city’s parks and gardens. In the Central Lowlands, grey squirrels are successfully being prevented from spreading north of the Highland Boundary Line, protecting Scotland’s core red squirrel populations in the Highlands and Grampian. In the south, a network of local volunteers is being established in priority areas, where healthy red squirrel populations are surrounded
European Squirrel Initiative
Founded in 2002, its aim is to create, develop and maintain a campaign
to win the support and commitment of governments throughout Europe in securing the future of the red squirrel through the effective control of the grey squirrel.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
Become involved in your local group. The amount that any one person can do to help the red squirrel make a comeback depends almost entirely on where they live. If you live in an area where red squirrels currently exist, or one that borders red squirrel strongholds, you’re in luck. Local groups in the north of England, including in Arnside & Silverdale, south Cumbria and in Wensleydale, are working hard to clear out the grey squirrels in the hope that reds may then return. In these areas, volunteers can perform vital work, such as reporting grey squirrels to local groups that can loan live-catch traps to apprehend the greys in their gardens. The rodents can then be collected and humanely dispatched. This clears large areas of greys at a minimum cost, allowing the reds to repopulate and expand their territory naturally. Northern Red Squirrels is an umbrella group of volunteers, which coordinates public action across the North of England and is a good point of contact.
In Scotland, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels always welcomes new members to help with anything from survey work to public engagement, as well as grey squirrel control. Anyone involved in grey squirrel control will receive full training; a directory of all the groups can be found on its website. One simple thing that anyone in Scotland can do is to report sightings of red and grey squirrels on scottishsquirrels.org.uk. The sightings data helps better understand the situation on the ground, measure the impact the group’s work is having and decide where to focus efforts in the future. Last year, 13,700 squirrel sightings were reported.