SCOTS have a lot of affection for their native ginger squirrel and while their protection will be challenging, recent successes show there is still a lot of hope for this iconic Scottish animal.
Last week MSP Murdo Fraser called on The Scottish Government to do more to protect the dwindling red squirrel population. Dr Mel Tonkin is project manager for Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, and she told Stevie Gallacher The Honest Truth about the furry creatures.
Why is the red squirrel under threat?
Red squirrels were once widespread throughout Britain, but they have been lost from most of England and Wales and the Scottish Central Lowlands. However, despite the loss of much of their original woodland habitat, red squirrels still thrive over much of Scotland, especially over Highland areas as well as many parts of southern Scotland. Today the most urgent threat to the red squirrel’s future is the spread of grey squirrels, an invasive species that can replace reds by competing for food and living space and by transmitting a deadly disease.
Where did the grey squirrel come from, and why is it moving into the red squirrel territory?
The grey squirrel is a North American species that was brought here in Victorian times to decorate the gardens of stately homes. They are twice the size of the native squirrel and breed more successfully, spreading further and further into the countryside, gradually replacing red squirrel populations.
What is squirrelpox?
Squirrelpox is a virus that is carried naturally by grey squirrels both in America and the UK without affecting them. Unfortunately, for red squirrels this is a new virus which affects them badly and is usually fatal within about two weeks. If the situation is not managed, grey squirrels will often move in and take their place.
What can be done to protect the red squirrel?
With help from land managers and volunteers, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is carrying out targeted grey squirrel control in the key areas where this will keep grey squirrels out of Scotland’s core red squirrel populations in the Highlands. We have found that keeping grey squirrel numbers low reduces competition and the risk of disease, and allows red squirrel populations to recover.
Can the pine marten help?
Research in Ireland and Scotland has found that when pine martens are present, grey squirrel numbers decrease and red squirrel numbers increase. The mechanism behind this is not yet well understood, but the effect is clearly related to the densities of pine marten populations. Therefore, although promising to be part of a future natural restriction on grey squirrel densities and range, pine marten populations are still recovering. Until they recover, targeted grey squirrel control is still necessary.
Can you feed red squirrels in your garden? If so, how?
Foods like hazelnuts and peanuts will go down well, but you should try to provide carrots or apples or even cast deer antlers to provide calcium that the seeds lack.
It’s important to keep feeders clean to protect red squirrels and other wildlife from the spread of disease and we would recommend scrubbing them down thoroughly in soapy water every two weeks.
What do Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels volunteers do? How can people help?
Our project is about community action – helping volunteers connect with one another and develop the skills and resources they need to protect red squirrels. We need trained volunteers to help deliver landscape-scale grey squirrel control and there are lots of other ways to get involved. Anyone interested in volunteering can join at scottishsquirrels.org.uk
What makes the red squirrel such an appealing animal?
If you’ve ever seen a squirrel frantically burying nuts and seeds you’ll understand they play an important role as natural tree-planters, and they are as much a part of our native woodland as the flora and fauna.