Help For Red Squirrels

According to Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE), there are approximately 138,000 red squirrels in the UK. For some people this may sound like a lot, but the grey squirrel population currently stands at 2.5 million. Due to the difficulty of monitoring these animals accurately, this number could be even greater.

Undoubtedly a much-loved aspect of British wildlife, red squirrels have faced many challenges in recent years, predominantly the impact of invasive grey squirrels and the subsequent squirrel pox that has decimated populations. While grey squirrels are immune to the disease, reds have a mortality rate of 100%. The virus causes skin ulcers, swelling and scabbing, and after contracting it, most animals die within two weeks.

However, our native reds still have strongholds in northern England, including Northumberland, North Yorkshire and several sites in Cumbria. For a chance of seeing this elusive mammal, it is important to know where exactly to look. Two particularly good spots for Cumbrian red squirrels are Aira Force on the Glencoyne Farm trail and Grasmere. There was an outbreak of squirrel pox at Grasmere in 2016, with more than ten confirmed cases in the valley. However, as a result of the hard work of the Grasmere Red Squirrel Group, the population of reds pulled through.

Feeding red squirrel (photographed in Lockerbie)

With the squirrel pox virus having such drastic consequences, it can be difficult to know what the best solution is. In 2012, RSNE established a monitoring programme that samples 300 forests and gardens in northern England each spring, using trail cameras to record where red squirrels can be found. The Wildlife Trusts are working to improve the red squirrel’s favoured habitat of coniferous woodland, initiating reintroduction schemes and combating the presence of grey squirrels in a few carefully selected areas where red squirrels face the greatest risk.

If you are interested in the red squirrels of northern England and want to learn more about their status in Cumbria, Red Squirrels Northern England Project Officer Simon O’Hare is doing a talk on Monday 5th February and will be sharing updates on how red squirrels are faring and explaining why it is so important to protect them. The event is taking place at Kirkby Stephen Friends Meeting House. For more information take a look at the Cumbria Wildlife Trust.

Like this?

Have a read of my post about filming red squirrels in Lockerbie here.

Give the Public Proper Nature, BBC!

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.

Read this for more information on the squirrelpox virus, or visit the BBC to watch the clip on albino squirrels.