I was scanning the Science headlines in BBC News recently and saw a piece about a family of squirrels in Edinburgh. Immediately I presumed the problem was the American greys causing more havoc with our native reds. After a year studying Wildlife Media and being told that many of the issues in our British countryside are the result of grey squirrels and sheep, I am automatically ready for more doom and gloom.
I was surprised therefore to discover that this story was a heartwarming one, of a family of albino squirrels that had taken up residence in an elderly man’s back garden. There were at least four of the snowy-furred mammals bouncing around on the grass. The film coverage by Cameron Buttle was less than two minutes long, but throughout the entire clip not one mention was made about how destructive the introduced grey squirrels have been in the UK.
I have the distinct impression that although science and environment is being covered in new stories, the content is very PG. Stories such as that of the squirrel are made frivolous, fun little stories that are mentioned at the very end of news coverage. It’s little wonder that so few of us are informed of the problems that are becoming more and more severe, such as the impact of grey squirrels on populations of red squirrels. The greys are larger and can survive in much denser populations than reds. According to Red Squirrels Northern England, “greys [can] achieve up to 15 individuals per hectare… and reds up to 2-3 per hectare”. In many cases, greys outcompete reds for food and territory.
And then there’s the disease. Grey squirrels are carriers of the squirrelpox virus, which has proved devastating to the more vulnerable reds, with the majority dying 15 days after having been exposed to the virus (Northern Red Squirrels, 2015).
Sadly, there was no mention of deadly skin ulcers or facial swelling in Buttle’s charming little article. The owner of the garden was described as a “lifelong nature lover”, yet didn’t seem perturbed by an invasive species taking over his lawn. In fact, he told the BBC he was “pleased and happy” about the new arrivals.
Why does the BBC dumb down its nature reports? Wildlife is a topic that desperately needs more coverage and exposure in the media, so why only include the “cute” stories and not the serious ones that desperately need addressing? Or, if there must be a heartwarming element, there could at least be some reality too.