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Published on : 14th February 2018

Why Are Red Squirrels in the UK Endangered?

Eurasian squirrel

In most of the UK, the red squirrel is classed as near threatened. Grey squirrels are the primary cause of the declining population of red squirrels in different parts of the country. The greys carry a virus that is lethal to the reds. They are also outcompeting the smaller reds for food and habitat. If the situation is not managed, the red squirrel may become extinct in the UK within the next 20 years.

Important Facts About Red Squirrels

The Eurasian squirrel, also popularly known as the red squirrel, is one of the UK’s native mammals. As its name suggests, this squirrel has a red to russet fur. However, not all of them have reddish coats. Some may have deep brown, grey or black fur. They have big tufty ears (which become more prominent in winter) and long, bushy tail.

Red squirrels are omnivores, but their diet is usually composed of pine seeds, tree flowers, green acorns, hazelnuts, berries and fungi, among others. Sometimes, they feed on eggs and other animals like young birds. During winter, they continue to forage, but they also prepare for the cold season by gathering food and storing them in tree trunk gaps or bury them in the ground.

Red squirrel on a tree branch

Found across Europe and Asia, red squirrels live in deciduous forests and woodlands just like in Knapdale Forest. Their population was thriving in the UK until the introduction of the grey squirrels in 1876. The greys were brought in from North America with the intention to add diversity to wildlife in the country. It was not until the 1940s that the real impact of the greys on the reds was noted.

Reports indicate that the population of red squirrels in the UK reached a high of 3.5 million. This figure has significantly dropped in the past centuries. As of 2017, their numbers are estimated to be around 140,000. This is better than that of 2007 when red squirrel population in the UK reached an all-time low of 25,000. From being found all over the UK, they can now only be seen in strongholds like Northumberland, Wales, Scotland, Lake District and Northern Ireland.

How Do Grey Squirrels Affect Red Squirrels?

The non-native squirrels carry the squirrelpox virus, also called squirrel parapox virus, which is destroying the red squirrel population in the UK. The virus, which seemingly has no effect on the greys, is killing the native reds. Once infected, red squirrels are most likely to die. Reports reveal that, after coming into contact with the virus, red squirrels die 25 times quicker. The pox virus causes lesions on the faces and paws of those infected. Death happens after two weeks of contracting the illness.

Grey squirrel

Apart from being carriers of the virus, the grey squirrels are also outcompeting red squirrels when it comes to food and habitat. Greys are physically larger than reds and they have bigger appetites as well. With this, they end up eating most of the food in the forest, leaving the reds with little or nothing to consume. Oftentimes, the greys even steal food red squirrels set aside for winter.

Consequently, with little food during winter, the reds lose weight and experience undue stress. These negatively affect female red squirrels, making it difficult for them to breed. Red squirrels typically begin breeding between January and March. The kittens are born in autumn or after 45 to 48 days. However, when food is scarce, births happen much later. Furthermore, the kittens’ survival rate also drops. Lower breeding success and juvenile deaths further exacerbate the problem about their declining population.

Recently, another virus, the adenovirus, has been noted as another emerging threat to the red squirrel population.  In humans, the adenovirus causes the common flu and respiratory illnesses. For squirrels, it causes digestive lesions which eventually results in diarrhoea and internal bleeding. Apart from the grey squirrels, the wood mice also carry the virus, making them threats to the red squirrels.

What Is Being Done to Save the Red Squirrels?

Several measures were put in place to prevent red squirrels from being completely extinct in the UK. For one, there is a legislation which prevents the release of grey squirrels into the wild. There have also been calls to eradicate these non-native squirrels. In 2017, the Wildlife Trusts sought the help of 5,000 volunteers in monitoring the population of red squirrels in specific areas. They were also requested to keep an eye on grey squirrels and trap or kill them when the opportunity presents itself.

Culling remains to be a controversial method; however, conservationists insist that with the growing population of grey squirrels, now estimated to be over 3 million, the UK is going to lose its only native squirrel for good. In fact, grey squirrels are expanding their range, even invading protected areas for the red squirrels.

Red Squirrel

So far, based on the data gathered, eradicating the greys allowed red squirrel population to improve particularly in Anglesey. Efforts to reintroduce the reds in different places like in north-west Scotland is also proving to be successful with reports indicating that they are spreading beyond the places where they were released.

While the red squirrel population in the UK is growing, conservationists say the fight isn’t over for as long as the greys are out there outcompeting the native reds. Hence, everyone must do their share to help ensure that red squirrel populations in the UK continue to thrive.

Eurasian Squirrel photo by Flickpicpete (Thanks for 2.5 million+ views)

Red Squirrel on a tree branch photo by Dave_S.

Grey Squirrel photo by postman.pete Thanks for 2m Views

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