Archive for October, 2014

Saving the red

It probably doesn’t occur to many people who delight in seeing and feeding grey squirrels in gardens and parks that this species has caused the severe decline of our native red squirrel.

Brought to this country from North America in the 1800s and released by landowners who had imported them to add an exotic flavour to their country estates, the greys are now widespread across the UK. The result is that the reds have now been pushed to particular areas of the UK, mainly Scotland and the North of England, where they are the subject of an ongoing battle. Smaller pockets also exist in islands off the South of England and parts of Wales.

I had the opportunity to see red squirrels in the wild when I accompanied environmental journalist Charlie Pye-Smith to Penrith to meet Robert Benson, chairman of the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group (PDRSG). Charlie is researching aspects of wildlife management for his forthcoming book The Facts of Rural Life.

Robert explained that the PDRSG operates as part of a network of groups spread across the UK, mainly in the North of England, with the common aim of campaigning and taking practical steps to ensure the survival of the red squirrel. Though it operates mainly on a voluntary basis, the PDRSG employs six rangers, who undertake the round-the clock vigilance required to protect the reds.

One of our native red squirrels given  a helping hand by the PDRSG

One of our native red squirrels given a helping hand by the PDRSG

As well as out-competing reds for food, habitat and being able to produce more young, greys carry a highly infectious disease, Squirrelpox virus, to which greys appear to be immune (apart from what could be described as cold-like symptoms), while the disease is fatal to their red cousins. Lesions and ulcers around the eyes, mouth and nose give the reds a condition similar to that of myxomatosis in rabbits, resulting in a painful death. The PDRSG requests the public to report sighting of sickly reds and the good news is that with treatment from vets working with the group some can make a full recovery. Much of the work of the group is keeping in contact with local landowners, informing them of the need to report sightings of grey squirrels.

Gaining the support of HRH the Prince of Wales was an important step in highlighting the plight of the red squirrel and the work of the group. The Prince, who has long campaigned for the revival of the native red squirrel, has been instrumental in setting up the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.

Charlie Pye-Smith and I then went out with Red Squirrel Ranger Jerry Moss to see his work at first hand. The only way the red squirrel will survive is by keeping certain areas of woodland ‘grey squirrel free’, so whenever they are spotted they are trapped or shot. Feeders had been put up for the reds in local woodland and on the day we were present red squirrels appeared within just a few minutes.

Jerry Moss, one of PDRSG's rangers

Jerry Moss, one of PDRSG’s rangers

Robert Benson accepts that the red squirrel is not going to be re-established across the whole of the UK and nor have they a realistic chance of returning to the level they reached in previous centuries, given the extent to which the grey has populated most of Britain. Consequently, there will be people who disapprove of culling grey squirrels in an attempt to bring the reds back to a reasonable level, referring to it, in the words of one animal group, as a kind of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

But some simple facts need to be acknowledged, the first being that, at the present time, there is no other way of ensuring the survival of the red squirrel. A vaccine for the red squirrel against the Squirrelpox virus has been suggested, but has yet to be produced, tested in the field and approved – a story that sounds worryingly familiar. The second is that to turn your back on the suffering of the reds infected with this virus can hardly be regarded as good animal welfare.

It all comes down to one of the aims of sensible wildlife management, which is in curbing certain species it is possible to save vulnerable species. How and where it is done is a matter of debate, but it is imperative to recognise that issues surrounding wild animals and their welfare require far more complex, and sometimes uncomfortable, solutions than the simplistic ‘kill or no kill’ policies so often advocated by certain animal rights groups.

The Penrith & District Red Squirrel Group can be contacted at:

The Estate Office, Lowther, Penrith, Cumbria. CA10 2HG

E-mail: info@penrithredsquirrels.org.uk

Photos: Charlie Pye-Smith



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