Black day for the red squirrel unless greys are halted

There may be better news for the threatened red squirrel as the new year unfolds. Liam Creedon reports.

The beginning of the year is one of the best times to spot our red squirrels. Their breeding season starts with mating chases, in January, which can be easy to glimpse in leafless deciduous woodlands.

We all know, however, that the red squirrel is in a spot of bother – bullied out of house and home by its bigger, brasher cousins. It's also under threat from a ruthless virus decimating its numbers.

Many people may be shocked to realise just how bad the situation really is. There are currently only 20,000 red squirrels left in England, and around 120,000 in Scotland.

Scientists believe that if nothing is done to halt the decline of possibly our most charismatic species, then the red squirrel could be extinct from the UK within 30 years.

After a series of depressing setbacks, 2010 was a year of steady progress across much of the now vastly restricted range of the virus, sciurus vulgaris. Scientists are even working on a vaccine that could offer hope against the deadly threat of squirrelpox.

To understand how best to help the species, conservationists have had to get to the heart of the problems the animals faced.

And the finger of blame points predominantly at their cousins – the greys. This American interloper is the only squirrel many of us have seen. Greys were released in England in 1876 as an ornamental species for the amusement of the well-off.

Greys are bigger, bolder and more adaptable and have out-competed their smaller cousins for food and shelter.

But they also harboured the squirrelpox virus, and it takes just one grey carrying it to decimate the local red squirrel population.

Schemes and projects have sprung up in Yorkshire, and in places such as Brownsea Island, in Dorset, and Anglesey, off North Wales, to protect existing red squirrel populations and build them up to a healthier level.

The long-term plan is to re-introduce reds from these stocks into grey squirrel-free areas of the mainland when conditions are right. But that situation is a long way off.

Dr Craig Shuttleworth, the country's leading red squirrel expert, is responsible for the North of England Red Squirrel Project. He scored a huge success by more or less ridding Anglesey of its greys. As a result, the island's reds have come storming back.

Other schemes across the UK have recorded similar successes. The red population in the pine woods of Formby, in Merseyside, suffered from a devastating outbreak of virus in 2007-8, but last year the squirrels recovered significantly.

The population in Cumbria, however, has struggled following an outbreak, and greys are still on the march in Scotland.

Dr Shuttleworth says of the reds: "If we do nothing, they will be extinct as a species in 30 years. They would hang on in some areas but most would be gone in 10 years' time.

"Do we want that or do we want to see things that are harder to conserve? It would be awful if in 30 years the red squirrel was extinct."

Scientists have recently made a breakthrough with a virus vaccine which, if all goes to plan, could be administered to reds in five years' time.

But being inoculated against the pox will not save the reds. Controlled culling of greys will also be essential.

Dr Shuttleworth says: "If we don't act, we will end up with a landscape full of sea gulls, grey squirrels, Japanese knotweed, mink and American signal crayfish.

"The red squirrel is part of the rich fabric of our woodland environment. If we can't save something as popular and charismatic as the red squirrel, how are we going to tackle saving something less popular and charismatic?"

CW 22/1/11