The subject of grey squirrels has come up a few times on this blog.  Yesterday I met a couple of representatives of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.  We had a very good discussion.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit nervous about it, as I was a little worried that we might be asked to get out our guns and start blasting away at grey squirrels all over the UK.  And that fear was based on previous discussions on this subject with others.  But yesterday's talk was very sensible - and actually quite exciting.Red squirrel

There is no doubt that the decline of the red squirrel is caused by the non-native grey squirrel.  A combination of competition for resources and the spreading of a disease that kills off the reds cause the reds to disappear. 

And the decline of the red squirrel has been every bit as dramatic as the decline of the corncrake - both have been lost from huge areas of the country where they were common at the beginning of the last century.  Now because the corncrake's decline has been pretty much entirely caused by land use changes our successful programme to reverse the decline has focussed on working with land owners and managers to provide the right habitat.  For red squirrels there is plenty of suitable habitat but it is currently occupied by disease-carrying grey squirrels.  So any red squirrel conservation programme has to deal with the greys - and since they cannot be chatted up and persuaded to move that means either moving them or killing them (to put it bluntly!)(although the possibility of feeding them sterilising drugs is always raised as a distant possibility).

Now my problem with previous discussions about this subject has been that the enthusiasm for killing grey squirrels has seemed to me to overwhelm any thoughts about whether that killing would actually do any good for the red squirrel.  We had a very different and thoughtful discussion yesterday. 

I learned about the success of conservation action on Anglesey where a few red squirrels survived but greys were taking over, before a combination of a cull of greys and topping up of the red population seems to have been very successful.

A successful conservation programme for red squirrels needs to protect the habitat of red squirrels where they still thrive (places like our own nature reserve at Abernethy which is a great place to see red squirrels), stopping the spread of grey squirrels and the transmission of squirrel pox disease (this has to be targetted at the Scottish/English border and we are cooperating with this work on our nature reserves in the north of England and south Scotland) and the setting up of new populations in former parts of the range (maybe there are some RSPB nature reserves which could play a part here).  This programme is not easy, nor will success be achieved quickly - but there is a rational basis for effective action here.  And that's what excited me about the discussion.  I suppose that through not knowing enough about the details I had almost written off any prospects of success with reversing the decline of red squirrels - but yesterday's discussion brought me up to speed and convinced me that progress was possible (even though not assured!).

I was also glad that the impacts of grey squirrels on woodland birds were not overstressed.  Certainly greys eat birds' eggs and nestlings - but then so do reds!  And the evidence that greys have been important in the declines of any of our declining woodland species is meagre (despite people, including us, having looked quite hard).  Many of the declining woodland birds are declining right across Europe - and there aren't grey squirrels anywhere else in Europe apart from northen Italy. 

So I was excited by the discussion we had with the Red Squirrel Survival Trust and we look forward to working with them and all other rational red squirrel conservationists.  So enthusiastic was I that I talked to some colleagues about it over lunch and am grateful to one of them for pointing out this interesting report, that pine martens may help stop the spread of grey squirrels.  Of course, pine martens were once very common across much of the UK and it is possible that their persecution and removal created the conditions under which greys found it much easier to spread.  Interesting!



  • FabFox - good points.  This does seem, though, to be one of the examples where having the habitat alone doesn't do the job.  Red squirrels have plenty of suitable habitat - it's just that greys are occupying it and carrying squirrel pox disease too.

  • How do we get Natural England to promote more of the right habitat for Red Squirrels i.e. commercial forestry?

    Could bird and squirrel conservation projects be designed to benefit each other? For instance..

    Really well managed commercial continuous-cover pine forest - managed on a landscape scale rather than an individual basis - is also the right habitat needed for Black Grouse in lowland Britain and only 100 years ago they were present in every county in England.  

  • Lewis - thanks for your comments.  Nestboxes should protect many species but there are plenty of open nesting species which may get nobbled by squirrels - red or grey.  But, as I wrote, we don't blame woodland bird declines primarily or even largely on grey squirrels.

    Squirrels certainly need habitat but there seems to be quite a lot of suitable woodland for red squirrels, it's just that it is occupied, now, by greys.  Thanks for your comments.

  • You state that Grey squirrels kill and eat nestlings. Having done two surveys in my LNR which is infested with Greys I found very little evidence of predation by Greys,  only one nesting box had evidence of attack which was unsuccessful.  Red Squirrels were culled in the early 20th century and were re-introduced following the success of Red Squirrel hunting clubs who were paid a bounty for each tail.

    The diseases that the Grey is immune to should not mean they are responsible for the Reds demise and little evidence exists to support this. Grey squirrels prefer the deciduous woodland that we provide. To save our Reds we should be planting the habitat they prefer.

  • Hi Mark guess who,enjoyed all you observations and I feel sure all your conclusions are accurate but unless we have a cull of Grey Squirrels the spread of the Reds will be agonisingly slow and although I dislike killing in this instance it seems very necessary after all the Reds are the natural residents and Greys introduced.Unfortunately I don't think Pine Martens will spread as quickly as perhaps you think as they will have difficulty negotiating gamekeepers and vehicles on roads.