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Saturday, 22 November 2014

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Red squirrels facing extinction in 30 years

Experts believe there may finally be light at the end of the tunnel in the battle to save the red squirrel from extinction. But last year wasn't a good one for the Cumbrian breed.

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Native red squirrels are under threat from grey squirrels

We all know the red squirrel is in a spot of bother – bullied out of house and home by its bigger, brasher, grey American cousins and under threat from a ruthless virus decimating its numbers.

But many will be shocked to realise just how bad the situation really is. There are currently around 120,000 red squirrels left in Scotland with only 20,000 in England. And those in Cumbria’s red squirrel strongholds, such as Whinlatter Forest, Greystoke Forest, Thirlmere and Ennerdale Valley, are under threat as the greys advance northwards.

Scientists fear that if nothing is done to stop the greys in their tracks, then the red squirrel – possibly our most charismatic species – could be extinct from the UK within 30 years.

Last year wasn’t a good one for Cumbria’s red squirrels. Populations here struggled following a bad outbreak of the squirrel pox virus and 40 dead reds were found in the county which tests later showed had died from the virus. In 2009 only 18 were found.

Charlotte Widgery, people and wildlife officer with Cumbria conservation group Save Our Squirrels, says the virus seems to have spread north along the Eden Valley.

“The trees and hedgerows that line roads and rivers are like motorways for squirrels,” she explains.

However the higher number of deaths last year sounds worse than it is. It could simply be that as the public grow more aware of the problem, more squirrel deaths are recorded.

“It’s not necessarily all doom and gloom, “Charlotte says. “There seem to have been significantly more deaths, but it may not be as bad as it at first appears.”

The big picture has scientists working on the squirrel equivalent of the Holy Grail – a vaccine that could offer hope against the deadly threat of squirrel pox.

To understand how best to help the species, conservationists have had to get to the heart of the problems the animals faced, and the finger of blame points predominantly at their cousins the greys.

Sadly for many living on these isles, this American interloper has become the only squirrel they will be familiar with.

Greys were released in England in 1876 as an ornamental species for the amusement of posh types who wanted them to populate the grounds of their stately homes.

They are bigger, bolder and more adaptable than our sensitive reds, and through no fault of their own other than being highly successful, they have out-competed their smaller cousins for food and shelter.

The greys rapidly dispersed and colonised much of mainland England, driving the reds out before them.

But the greys also harboured a far more devastating weapon in their armoury – the squirrel pox virus (SQPV).

It takes just one grey carrying SQPV to decimate the local red squirrel population. Greys aren’t harmed by it, but in reds it causes open sores around the eyes, ears, nose and paws –which then put them at risk from secondary infections.

So the grey tide has swept all before it. The reds found themselves homeless, helpless and destined for annihilation.

Luckily, squirrel nuts from across the UK rushed to their defence and schemes to halt the greys in other parts of the country have had some success in protecting existing red squirrel populations – and even building them up to much healthier levels. In Anglesey off the coast of north Wales and Formby on Merseyside the native reds have come storming back.

Dr Craig Shuttleworth, the country’s leading red squirrel expert, is responsible for the North of England Red Squirrel Project. He insists that the red squirrel does have a viable future here, but warns: “We’ve got a fairly short time to act. I’m optimistic but also realistic.

“If we do nothing they will be extinct as a species in 30 years. They would hang on in some areas but most would be gone in 10 years’ time.

“Do we want that, or do we want to see things that are harder to conserve?”

Scientists have recently made a breakthrough in a vaccine against SQPV. The Moredun Institute in Edinburgh has been working on it and researchers there hope to carry out early field trials this year.

However it could still be a few years before it is administered to our red squirrels – and every year we have to wait, the further the grey squirrels advance.

Besides, as Charlotte points out, the vaccine may still face problems even if it is ready soon.

“There are the logistics of how we get it out there.

“And who would pay for it? When budgets are being cut left, right and centre, how high a priority would red squirrel conservation be?”

She adds that the virus is not the only problem that grey squirrels pose for the reds. They are larger animals so out-compete them for food. A vaccine might stop reds from dying from squirrel pox – but it wouldn’t stop them dying from starvation.

“The vaccine would help enormously,” Charlotte says. “It would slow the progress of the greys and buy the reds more time, but the greys still need to be kept away from the reds.”

The idea of developing a contraceptive for grey squirrels has been suggested but little progress has been made on it, so a cull of grey squirrels remains the only option.

Traps are set and when a red squirrel is found inside it is released. When a grey is found inside it is shot.

Deliberately killing wild animals will never be something everyone is comfortable with, and the question of culling the greys goes right to the heart of modern conservation. Why should we punish an animal whose only sin is to be biologically successful?

Surely there is a strong argument that the killing of mink, grey squirrels and other “invaders” is little more than xenophobia?

Craig doesn’t agree: “If we don’t act we will end up with a landscape full of seagulls, grey squirrels, Japanese knotweed, mink and American signal crayfish.

“The red squirrel is part of the rich fabric of our woodland environment. Despite being popular they are still under threat.

“If we can’t save something as popular and charismatic as the red squirrel how are we going to tackle saving something less popular and charismatic?”

And Charlotte argues that trapping a grey squirrel and dispatching it quickly is far more humane than allowing red squirrels to starve or undergo a slow, lingering death – that can take up to two weeks – from SPQV.

“Whatever we do some squirrels will die,” she says. “Either we have to kill some greys or we have to allow reds to die. We have gone beyond the luxury of having both.

“We have to face the reality of what we have done as humans.”

The beginning of the year is one of the best times to spot Cumbria’s red squirrels. Their breeding season starts with mating chases this month which can be easy to glimpse in deciduous woodlands which are still leafless at this time of year.

Ennerdale Valley is one area where greys are beginning to pose a threat to reds, and the parish council there is looking for people to help its monitoring work.

For more details contact Muir Lachlan at muir.lachlan@btopenworld.com or call 01946 862237.

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