Iconic and beloved, for many the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is the most quintessentially British of wildlife. But assailed by habitat loss and disease, the species could soon become a forgotten footnote in natural history.
A study recently released by Eden TV suggests the red squirrel could become extinct in England in the next few years and in the UK in 20 years. The species is currently 'almost extinct' in England with only a few thousand remaining in Wales.
Prince Charles succinctly expressed the disbelief many British people likely share. 'Our squirrels are facing a battle for survival. It seems almost incomprehensible to me that we have allowed this situation to happen.'
The squirrels’ decline has been precipitous – 95 per cent of the original population in England has been lost over the last 50 years, according to the Eden study. The most recent estimates of red squirrel population size compiled by Harris et al in 1995 put total red squirrel numbers in Britain at 161,000, with approximately 30,000 in England, 10,000 in Wales (although recent estimates are significantly lower), and a population of 121,000 in Scotland, representing 70-75 per cent of the GB population, according to the UK Red Squirrel Group.
The fragmented population in England is dotted around the country, from islands in Poole Harbour, to the Isle of Wight, in Thetford forest, East Anglia (although this population may already have disappeared) and across the north of England.
These hard-pressed isolated pockets of red squirrels battle with grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) to survive.
Greys were introduced to approximately 30 different sites in the UK between 1876 and 1929, and contributed to the decline in red squirrel populations since 1920, the UK Red Squirrel Group explains. Grey squirrels have now replaced red squirrel populations throughout much of their former range.
Experts think that, once grey squirrels arrive in a wood populated by red squirrels, the two species can co-exist for about 20 years before red squirrels disappear.
Sick and crowded out
While experts disagree over the details, it is clear that greys threaten red squirrels in two main ways: By some estimates, greys eat seven times more food per hectare, aggressively competing and crowding reds out until eventually only greys are left. Greys also eat food before it is ripe enough for reds to eat.
Greys also carry disease – an estimated 60 per cent of grey squirrels in England and Wales carry the squirrel parapoxvirus, commonly shortened to SPPV or referred to as squirrel pox. Greys very rarely die from this disease as their population has developed immunity over many years. However, they are still carriers of the infection and can spread the disease to red squirrels.
In sharp contrast, no red squirrels are known to have developed immunity to the disease, and the mortality rate for untreated infected squirrels in the wild appears to be total, most dying within two weeks of being infected. Whole populations can be rapidly wiped out.
Red squirrels in Lancashire, one of the few designated national strongholds, are currently falling victim to an onslaught of the disease. The Lancashire Wildlife Trust (LWT) is urging the public to be vigilant after the deadly virus returned to the Sefton coast.
Local red squirrel conservation experts alerted the public in August after the body of a red squirrel was found in Ainsdale, Merseyside, which is part of the north Merseyside and west Lancashire red squirrel stronghold. Expert analysis at the University of Liverpool confirmed the animal died of squirrel pox, a worst case scenario for conservationists. The LWT Conservation Officer for north Merseyside, Fiona Whitfield, said the discovery is a heavy blow to recovering populations of red squirrels in Ainsdale and Formby previously ravaged by the pox.
That last bout of squirrel pox decimated the population, which has clung on in a large area of woods and gardens in the area – numbers crashed by 80 per cent. But the squirrels had since staged a remarkable recovery. Densities of reds looked set to approach their pre-epidemic values within a year, and there had been encouraging reports of reds spreading into the surrounding woods and countryside.
Fiona Whitfield told the Ecologist that the new pox case was particularly concerning due to its close proximity to the first outbreak. 'Our red squirrel population had started to recover from the two devastating outbreaks in 2006 and 2008 and we were feeling positive about their future, so this finding is a setback,' she said. 'We have had more reports of sick squirrels and we want people to report any more sightings to us so we can act quickly to contain this.'
'Squirrel pox virus is a huge problem as there is no obvious way of stopping an outbreak and once it is in the red population it speeds through,' she said, adding that the area is fortunate to have a Liverpool University PhD project looking at squirrel pox and a full time LWT field officer to carry out proactive trapping.
Out of control?
Dr Craig Shuttleworth is one of the leading red squirrel experts in the UK and works with the Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST) and other organisations. He told the Ecologist that grey control is 'the central foundation of red squirrel conservation strategy,' noting that grey squirrels are a major timber pest, bark stripping oak, sycamore, birch and beech particularly, so are controlled even in areas where there are no red squirrels. He also pointed to growing evidence that grey squirrels have an adverse effect upon the productivity of some woodland songbirds.
While ‘control’ of grey squirrels is widely agreed upon as the best strategy to ensure the long term survival of red squirrels, many conservationists are reluctant to discuss it, wary that relocation or extermination of grey squirrels may be perceived poorly by the animal-loving public that are a significant source of funding.
'As far as I am aware, all projects, including Anglesey and Scotland, have grey control as their primary conservation effort,' said Fiona Whitfield. She called grey control 'only strategy we have at present,' as without a contraceptive or vaccine 'there is no other method of maintaining red squirrel populations.'
But as the downturn takes hold, these labour intensive control methods may no longer be possible. Already sparse funding is in increasingly short supply, said the LWT’s Fiona Whitfield. 'We are currently two years into a three year project which we are carrying on with a deficit. We are hopeful we can get the funding for the rest of this year and have bids in for a further three year project.'
The shortfall has left doubts over staffing at the worst possible time, she said, calling resourcing 'the major issue.' 'Our People and Wildlife Officer had recently been made redundant, which has a knock on effect to the work of the Field Officer and the Conservation Officer,' Fiona Whitfield said. 'We need public awareness to keep people on board and to keep funders interested but we have limited time to respond to peoples’ requests.'
The LWT, like other organisations, is forced to send frontline staff to campaign and appeal for donations at local events, a poor use of their time, especially given the current problems.
'Red squirrel conservation has always demanded the creative use of financial and voluntary resources, and the economic downturn has meant that this ethos has become even more important,' said Dr. Shuttleworth. 'The traditional sources of such funds are charitable trusts and foundations whose income has been severely affected by the current economic downturn – as have all income streams.'
Despite funding issues, most are cautiously confident about the future of red squirrels, provided conservationists get the support they need. Dr. Shuttleworth said safeguarding the remaining populations is the first step. 'We should aim to maintain species with as wide a UK distribution as possible particularly given the uncertainties regarding climate change,' he said.
Strangely, the mono-culture tree plantations that have attracted criticism may actually help red squirrels. Reds do better in areas with coniferous species where greys cannot out compete them, leading conservationists to plant pines such as the European Black Pine (Pinus nigra) in red squirrel habitats.
A more coordinated approach is beginning to become evident, LWT’s Fiona Whitfield said. 'The government can help – at the moment grants can be claimed via the England Woodland Grant Scheme, and the Forestry Commission and Natural England are funding some work through Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE).'
The LWT, who have put resources into red squirrel conservation for over 20 years, are now partners in wider projects including the National Trust, Red Alert, Save Our Squirrels and Red Alert North England, and have the backing of the Forestry Commission and Natural England.
RSST have been instrumental in galvanising community support and facilitating wider partnership in red squirrel conservation, particularly in the north of England. Here the emphasis is upon landscape scale conservation of red squirrels whilst recognising the red reserves centred around coniferous plantations.
'These large areas – Kielder forest is one – form part of a wider woodland matrix and these landscapes have been modelled by Newcastle University so that we have spatial predictions about the likely dispersal routes used by grey squirrels,' said Dr. Shuttleworth. 'As a result, trapping can focus upon pinch points and areas where effort will deliver the maximum benefit to red squirrel populations.'
But more is needed, Fiona Whitfield stressed. 'Landowners can help by allowing access to their land, claiming grants and doing grey control themselves, members of the public can report sightings, support their local wildlife trust, support grey control, in an area with reds everyone has to be on board if there is a route for greys to move through they will take it.'
Dr. Shuttleworth agreed that both support for existing efforts and the evolution of new local efforts to conserve red squirrels is needed. 'Community driven initiatives capture local desires and are often independent of grant and other statutory funding streams. They are robust and sustainable as a result, the long term legacy is practical conservation that is long-term.'
'Everyone can help with red squirrel conservation – reporting sightings of red or grey squirrels, getting involved in local volunteer groups, or even just learning about the subject and making other people aware of the issues,' he added.
The public can aid red squirrels’ fortunes by helping the Merseyside Red Squirrel Survivors Project, led by the University of Liverpool, with the National Trust and the Lancashire Wildlife Trust as partners. The project could yield vital information in ensuring the survival of red squirrels, not just at Sefton, but also nationally. Vet Tim Dale and his team are taking blood samples from captured red and grey squirrels and microchipping them.
Tim Dale explained that samples are analysed for the presence of antibodies and virus DNA, a high tech approach that may offer the best hope for a squirrel pox vaccine. 'Common factors that are associated with disease can then be identified and help contribute to a preventative control programme to stop such an epidemic occurring in red squirrels again.'
Dr. Shuttleworth stressed the need for timely action. 'The decisions that we take today are a legacy that we leave for our children; for example my children in North Wales are lucky enough that in 1997 an 87-year-old lady decided that something had to be done to safeguard the few remaining red squirrels on Anglesey. As a result of her efforts, today red squirrels are widespread on the island.'
Eric Robson, presenter of Gardeners’ Question Time and Great Railway Journeys of the World, said that the reintroduction of red squirrels could have significant benefits. Robson, who has lived in Cumbria all his life, has a sheep farm and has penned books relating to rural matters. 'The red squirrel sits at the very centre of tourism in Cumbria,' he said. 'If we can re-establish it in its traditional habitats in Cumbria it will not only be an environmental triumph but will also provide a measurable boost to the county’s biggest industry. Together we’ll get Squirrel Nutkin back where he belongs!'
Reintroduction has been successful in Anglesey in Wales, but this is an isolated island habitat where greys have been eradicated. Without a nationwide effort to completely eliminate all grey squirrels from the UK, replicating even this minor victory will be difficult.
As Sir Chris Bonington, the world-renowned mountaineer, writer and photographer, has said: 'Though saving our native red squirrel is a real challenge, I firmly believe it is achievable. Red squirrels are facing their own Everest.'