The red, or Eurasian red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris is a tree squirrel of the genus Siurus squirrel that has been apart of our landscape since the last ice age. They migrated to Britain from Eurasia 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age and the species is entirely separate from its grey and black cousins. ie. they do not interbreed. The native red has been in decline since the arrival of the greys, brought over from America in the 19th century. Dancing in the trees, running, jumping, playing, scavenging for nuts and fruit whilst humans became civilised, lived through dark ages, medieval times. The red squirrel has been here, gently clucking tutting and tail swishing. A creature of real beauty, both in character and nature. As diverse and individual as we humans are ourselves. We have a duty to protect, to care for these wonderful creatures that we find ourselves living along side and sharing our woods and our landscapes. They delight, they entertain and they educate us and in return we should protect and ensure they have safe happy lives. Yet ignorance has led us to destroy our native species.
The name “squirrel” first appeared in 1327, it is Norman French, “esquirel” derived from Latin , “sciurus” – meaning “shadow tail”. The native Old English name was “ācweorna”, from Old English “ǣċ” (Oak) and “æcern”. Little Acorn, Shadow Tail.
(The earliest British fossil record of the Red Squirrel was 4542 years ago on the Isle of Wight but it is thought they date from 12,500 years ago.)
The red squirrel migrated to Britain from Eurasia 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age and the species is entirely separate from its grey and black cousins. ie. they do not interbreed. The native red has been in decline since the arrival of the greys, brought over from America in the 19th century. Since the release of only a few pairs , the greys have bred and spread and now number in the millions. The simple fact is they shouldn’t be here, they do not fit our environment. They are too big, too strong, too destructive. They have decimated the oak and broad leaf forests in England, however, they are not as keen on the pines and conifers in Scotland.
There are constant reports in the press about the destruction the greys cause, biting through wires, starting fires. They devastate our natural environment, stripping trees of bark killing them dead. They are officially vermin, as it is the diseases that they carry and spread that have wiped out our native red squirrel.
Red squirrel numbers have fallen by 98%. There are less than 100,000 left. The pox virus is carried by the greys and passed to the reds, it is extremely infectious. Now endemic in all the southern greys, it kills 100% of reds and greys do not develop any symptoms. They pass it on at shared feeders and when just one grey enters a red colony hundreds of reds die horrifically, starving to death with tumours on their faces. The whole area is wiped out in around ten days to a fortnight. They literally fall out of the trees. Remove the greys and the reds return.
Since the release of the couple of pairs of greys in the south, they have been pushing north, like a huge grey wave. They arrived in South Scotland in 1998, the first grey was spotted near Lockerbie. A timber wagon stop on the main motorway. They hitch rides. You can admire their tenacity and their ability but not the total devastation they leave in their wake. They push up through Kielder forest on the east, and are heading in massive numbers to meet up with the central belt greys. When this happens, they will spread the virus through that colony and it will all be over for the red squirrel. The native red squirrel – our iconic squirrel will be gone forever. Because of our irresponsible actions.
The grey is bigger, stronger, has more young that survive the first winter when reds have few and high mortality. The greys can eat unripe fruit an berries earlier than the reds, thus out competing their cousins in every way. Roads, man again, are one of the biggest killers of red squirrels, along with birds of prey whose numbers are recovering with conservation. But only because the numbers are so low.
The progression and advance of the greys has been recorded and monitored. Their numbers have expanded to an estimated 5 million and the wave of greys pushes constantly north up the country. The disease clears an area of the native and the greys take it over. Reds numbers in SW Scotland have fallen to critical levels due to the constant pox outbreaks in the wake of the greys pushing upwards over the border. ( see outbreak case studies, Paxton House, Borders).
Pic courtesy Cornish Red Squirrels
Many groups are now actively controlling the grey squirrel and its spread. The Scottish Wildlife Trust and many in England, Wales and Ireland have now protection in place for the reds. Many people everywhere working so hard to save them. Grey control simply for the numbers would have been necessary at some point. But they project that it will be gone within five years. Our only hope is a vaccine, again around five years away.
“The red squirrel, the wildcat, and the grey long-eared bat are all facing severe threats to their survival, according to new research.
They are among 12 species that have been put on the first “red list” for wild mammals in Britain.
The Mammal Society and Natural England study said almost one in five British mammals was at risk of extinction.”
Patrolling the squirrel frontline
“Red Alert South West Scotland relies heavily on the local populace to help its bid to block the “main routes of incursion” from the south.
It is at the frontline of stopping grey squirrels getting into a red squirrel stronghold.
And in the woodlands throughout its area it has now established a total of 13 safe havens.
The south of Scotland is one of a small number of areas in the UK where the reds still thrive.
They are under constant threat, however, from their grey counterparts which compete with them for food.
The grey squirrels also carry the squirrel pox virus which has no effect on them but is fatal for the reds.
Red Alert has been a busy organisation since it was set up some seven years ago.
At this time squirrel pox presents a very localised threat but, without direct action, could rapidly spread throughout Scotland
Red Alert South West Scotland
Its main aim is to raise awareness of conservation issues surrounding the animals and also highlight the impact of habitat loss and disease.
At this time squirrel pox presents a very localised threat but, without direct action, could rapidly spread throughout Scotland,” Ms Hatfield said.
“The majority of the traps Red Alert has out on loan are located in Annandale, Eskdale and Nithsdale, these being the main routes of incursion and subsequent spread.
“In the past year this voluntary effort has results in close to 130 pioneer grey squirrels being prevented from establishing in Dumfries and Galloway.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said that, on occasions, such action may be necessary.
“While we are opposed to the unnecessary killing of any wild animal we do recognise that in certain situations populations need to be controlled,” she said.
“If conservationists deem this to be the case we would expect any cull to be subject to high animal welfare standards.”
“To assess the effectiveness of these measures, red squirrel populations are monitored each year.”
So far, the population seems to be holding steady against the potential invasion of the greys.
But Red Alert, as its name suggest, will not be letting its guard down any time soon.
They have killed about 650 squirrels over an 18-month period.
These animals then form the basis of monitoring for squirrel pox in the area.
“One of Red Alert’s particular concerns is the increasing number of grey squirrels arriving in Dumfries and Galloway,” explained Rhiannon Hatfield, from the organisation.
“Not only do these squirrels compete aggressively for food but many of those entering the region from Cumbria carry with them a pox virus that results in very rapid death of the red squirrels into which they come into contact.
“An outbreak of the disease in a population of red squirrels near Lockerbie last year resulted in a number of deaths.”
It is for that reason that Red Alert distributes traps to people who are willing to help – after appropriate training – with the “humane control” of grey squirrels.
Two full-time Grey Squirrel Control Officers are also employed by Scottish Natural Heritage to cover the Nith, Annan and Esk river valleys.”
Sadly and worryingly, the incursion of the grey squirrels and the disease outbreaks, has led to SWT declaring SW Scotland being declared a “Grey Zone” last November, 2017. The sightings suggest greys now outnumber reds three to one and outbreaks will eventually eliminate all the reds from this region as has been the continual pattern as they move up the country.
“Dr. Mel Tonkin, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels Project Manager said: “Unfortunately red squirrel numbers have continued to fall in parts of the Scottish Borders, especially since the arrival in Berwickshire of the deadly Squirrelpox virus from south of the border in 2011. However, there are still good populations of red squirrels from Galashiels and Jedburgh westwards, and Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is carrying out conservation work aimed at safeguarding these squirrels.
“In Dumfries and Galloway, red squirrels continue to do well, but are threatened by increasing records of grey squirrels which appear to be spreading into Nithsdale from the east and north. It is vital that the work we do here is stepped up to make sure these red squirrel populations remain healthy.”
Some areas in the Borders did not have a single red squirrel sighting logged during the whole of 2017. Once a red stronghold, the arrival of the greys has devastated the red population.