The plight of the red squirrel is a commonly known example of the negative knock-on effects of the introduction of alien species to native fauna, since the establishment of an out-competing grey squirrel population from the late 19th century. Unknown to me, however, was that although the captive breeding of red squirrels has fortunately been successful, as I witnessed at Pensthorpe Natural Park (Norfolk), the issue now is where to release them. The obvious choice would be the areas of Scotland which remain free of grey squirrels, where the majority of the UK population exists, though what interests me is the role that islands have to play in the reintroduction of this endearing species. The conservation of species on islands is never going to be straightforward, taking into consideration founder effects, novelty of pathogens and something I’ve seen aptly termed ‘green xenophobia’- the worry that introducing alien species would do more harm than good to the balance of an ecosystem. However, red squirrels are currently thriving in stable populations offshore after grey-free British Isles have been recolonized, such as Mersea Island in the East, Brownsea Island in the South, and the Isle of Arran in Scotland.
Historically marooned island populations also give hope against genetic odds, such as the stable population on Jersey where the red squirrel was originally introduced as an alien species, whereby disease incidence in the population can’t actually be linked to the deleterious effects of a genetic bottleneck or inbreeding. This has given hope for future island introductions, such as the recent successful introduction of alien reds to Tresco Island without adverse impacts on the ecosystem. Seemingly, providing offshore refuges to the red squirrel should be given recognition as a viable route for conservation to take, despite the somewhat ironic risk (think back to the greys!) of alien species introduction.
So where can we go from here? I’d like to see red squirrels introduced to my grey squirrel-free home place, the Isle of Man. Back in 2008, the debate on the feasibility of such a conservation plan was brought forward and almost immediately brushed under the governmental carpet, though since then further press releases and broadcasts of general public opinion have kept the possibility alive. While I am forever proud of the beautiful landscapes that the Isle of Man boasts, unless I had committed to becoming an avid birder from a young age I lacked the passion that I now have for the native fauna of Britain, as the island isn’t home to the charismatic mammals that we’re so lucky to have here in the UK. Without the presence of the badger, otter, deer, fox or mole, there’s a limit to how much love and appreciation one can feel for a herring gull after your ice cream.
Of course I do feel blessed that the island is a haven to species that aren’t doing so well in England, such as the brown and mountain hare, but my point on charisma is this; it is the loveable nature of the red squirrel that will safeguard its conservation, as the exclusivity of being able to enjoy reds in abundance would bring in attention and funding from tourists who frequent the Isle of Man. The Island’s mixed woodland, coniferous plantations and glens with a rich varied age structure would provide attractive habitats for red squirrels. Though these habitats may be fragmented, this is also the case in Jersey where the population isn’t suffering for it. Birders may argue that these habitats provide nesting sites for birds that may suffer from egg predation by red squirrels if resources weren’t sufficient, but supplementary food provision would serve to buffer the seasonal variations that could lead to this. If there are issues with the effort and cost of such protection and monitoring of reds on the Isle of Man, I have little doubt that support would be provided by UK based conservation organisations, such as the British Wildlife Centre who have openly stated a commitment to the cause if the opportunity arose.
While opinion is split, and funding isn’t currently being dedicated to surveying the Isle of Man as a possible introduction site (as far as I’m aware), I’d be happy to see the debate continue and lead to finding evidence that this conservation route is a risk worth taking. While we can’t be sure that England will ever be restored to ensure a widespread population could thrive again, I believe that safeguarding the future of the red squirrel wherever we can in a wild state is a worthy cause, and islands shouldn’t be ruled out of the picture.
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