I have a reputation, undeserved I would say, for leading my in-laws on unproductive wildlife forays.  One such occasion involved my failure to find the promised red squirrels in monsoon conditions in Northumberland.  The fruitless search became famiy legend in a song, the chorus of which begins 'Where do squirrels go in the pouring rain?'

This weekend, to top off a great half-term break, we celebrated my father-in-law's seventieth birthday.  We were staying in Shap Wells Hotel in the Lake District to revive memories of philosophy weekends that he led during the 1970s and 1980s to which he took all his family. 

The birthday weekend was a success.  Whilst my my wife's family were able to reminisce, the kids and I explored the neighbouring woods, stream and moor.  And on our doorstep we were 'guaranteed' red squirrels.

The weather on the first two days was mixed so we were forced into hasty retreat by rain, wind or sleet.  No red squirrels to be seen.

But yesterday morning, the sun shone and sure enough, they came out to play.  Nine of them. The boy even managed to take a photo of one scrambling up a tree.  This was not exactly the most taxing of safaris, but the reward was great. 

While I have yet to find out where squirrels go in the pouring rain, I did decide to remind myself of the conservation challenges faced by one our most loved mammals. 

This, rather gloomy assessment comes from last year's state of Britain's mammals report from the People's Trust for Endangered Species...

"Red squirrels were historically widespread throughout Britain, but have suffered a dramatic decline of more than 50% over the last 50 years while expanding throughout Scotland. They were designated a UK BAP Priority Species in 1997. The main threat is the invasive grey squirrel, introduced to the UK in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Grey squirrels are able to digest acorns more successfully than red squirrels and out-compete reds for forage in woods where oak trees constitute more than 14% of the canopy.  Additionally, greys are carriers of the squirrel poxvirus (SQPV), transmitted through direct contact  and environmental  contamination, which is lethal to reds.

Developing best practice survey and monitoring continues to be an important conservation action and a recent study showed that baited counts, compared with standard visual counts, increased detectability of squirrels. Extended durations of baiting could attract non-residents, so baited surveys should not be too long and also should be diffuse to avoid promoting disease transmission between squirrels.

Unlike SQPV, adenovirus is a naturally occurring enteric disease in red squirrels, albeit so far occurring at low levels, but localised outbreaks could be detrimental to fragile populations. The disease has so far been recorded in Merseyside, Anglesey, Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland.

Nowadays, Scotland contains more than 75% of the UK red squirrel population, although greys are absent from only parts of the red’s Scottish range – primarily in the Highlands  (a grey squirrel was caught in Inverness in 2007 and, in 2010, one was killed on Skye). Probably reds will survive only in conifer patches in Scotland and a few other areas free of greys. A priority woodlands analysis in 2005, co-funded by PTES and others, aimed ato identify the major Scottish woodlands that may support red squirrel populations. Next came the Scottish Red Squirrel Action Plan  and then the development of red squirrel strongholds by the Forestry Commision and SNH. In 2009 a total of 18 stronghold sites, plus the Isle of Arran, were identified as foci of red squirrel conservation. Elsewhere in the UK hope rests with islands (the Angelsey Red Squirrel Project and the Wight Squirrel Project). The first case of SQPV in Scotland was discovered in 2005 – so, in the continued absence of a vaccine, the omens for the red squirrel in the UK are bleak."

We're doing our bit for red squirrel conservation, particulalry as many of our Scottish reserves (for example at Abernethy) hold good populations of red squirrels.  But, the PTES report is a timely reminder that, as with so many other threatened species in the UK, we all need to step up and do more if we want to reverse the declines.

If you have been away for the half-term, I hope you had a good break and bumped into some great wildlife.  And if you've been working, well I hope the guest blogs from my international research colleagues brought you some escapism.

  • Sadly think the only solution is a dedicated cull of Greys or most of us will never have Reds in our own areas which is such a shame.Always think Reds should be introduced to Mull with the large areas of pine they have and no greys I believe.