What is the Fate of UK Red Squirrels?

I have never seen a red squirrel, though I imagine them to be very nimble. I’ve seen pictures however, where bright red coats and large tails remind me of what I am missing. Certain areas of the UK still hold promise of spotting a red squirrel, a sight that was once not rare in most places. Now recent figures of as low as 15,000 are said to be in England. Determined as I am to see one, it seems time is running out. Without conservation management, it is estimated that red squirrels could become extinct in England in approximately ten years. To discuss what is failing these creatures and how to help increase numbers has been the focus of my reading these past few weeks and I thought I would share more about the fate of the red squirrel in the UK.

With a population of around 140,000 in the UK, of which many live in Scotland, red squirrels have declined heavily over the years. They have a fascinating history to match their vibrant appearance, having existed since the ice age and being the only species of squirrel native to Britain. After asking around, it seems quite a lot of people know that red squirrels are not as common as they once were yet before researching into this topic, I hadn’t known how bad the red squirrels’ situation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was, confirmed by their Near Threatened status.

Though you may encounter a red furry friend in Northern England or Scotland, it is more likely now to see one of the 2.5 million grey squirrels in a nearby park or garden. Unfortunately, many scientific studies cite the introduction of this species as largely the cause of demise in native reds. Grey squirrels carry a virus called Squirrel Pox which they are immune to but is fatal in red squirrels. Since the introduction of non native greys in the late nineteenth century from America, the Squirrel Pox Virus has resulted in a huge decrease in the red squirrel population. Accelerating the rate of decrease is factors such as habitat loss and clearing of wild spaces. Woodlands, where they are known to live, have disappeared. Imagine both of these threats and factor in the competition for food and you’ve got limited time to act and dwindling numbers. For the red squirrels, all hope is not lost however and luckily they have always been cherished by wildlife lovers everywhere.

The forefront of securing a positive future for red squirrels is conserving them where they are (in Northern England and Scotland) and expanding populations at other points in England. It’s fortunate that surrounding the red squirrel, there is an abundance of conservation efforts. The Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST), a national charity, has aims such as keeping native reds from infection, securing the environment they exist in by protecting ancient woodland and funding research. Due to what is causing the downfall of red squirrels, habitat management is instrumental in keeping these creatures around for more than 10 years. The Wildlife Trusts have been part of this. According to their website ‘The Wildlife Trusts is part of Red Squirrels United, a partnership of academics, practitioners and volunteers, working together on a programme of red squirrel conservation’ this ‘is focused on conserving red squirrel populations in nine specific areas in Northern Ireland, Northern England and Wales’.

The Caledonian Forest is becoming home to an increasing number of red squirrels as they move to find food and habitat. Trees For Life is a fantastic charity working to restore this forest. Volunteers can help plant trees as part of this restoration and there are many other ways of helping too.

In terms of protecting red squirrels directly from disease, medical efforts are in progress. It seems this is a possibility in future but now when the squirrels really need our help, there are other ways of doing good.

I could not be more enamoured with red squirrels. They are a classic storybook character, a woodland icon, much like the wonderful hedgehog or owl. There is a chance here to them bring back from the brink and now is the best time ever, to take it.



image credit: sweetaholic


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Rosie Alice

Environmental Studies student in Winchester, UK.

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