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.
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. It’s well known that they are not as common as they once were, this decline confirmed by their near threatened status.
The red population has been superseded and it is now more likely to see one of the 2.5 million grey squirrels in a nearby park or garden in the UK. 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’re immune to, but is fatal in red squirrels. Since the introduction of non-native greys in the late nineteenth century from America, the virus has resulted in a huge decrease in the red squirrel population. Woodlands, where they are known to live, have also 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 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 currently (in northern England and Scotland) and expanding populations at other points in England. It’s fortunate that surrounding the red squirrel is an abundance of conservation efforts. The Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST), a national charity, outlines several aims in their conservation activities, 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, secure and confined habitat management is instrumental in keeping them around for more than 10 years. The Wildlife Trusts are pioneering this, with their involvement in Red Squirrels United, a partnership of academics, practitioners and volunteers working together. This focuses on conserving red squirrel populations in nine 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 and help re-wild the land.
In terms of protecting red squirrels directly from disease, medical efforts are in progress. It seems this is a possibility in future but for now, there are other ways of doing good.
Red squirrels are a classic storybook character, a woodland icon, much like the 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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