Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Red Squirrel Rescue

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

Red squirrel rescue

Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are a native species, which have inhabited Britain since the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago.  However, its reign over the British Isles was toppled in 1876 when Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) where introduced from America.
There are few differences between the two species, apart from the greys being slightly larger and the reds having an inability to digest acorns.  However, one fatal difference between the two species is the Grey squirrels’ ability to carry the squirrel pox virus (SQPV) unharmed.  With the first case discovered in 2005, it has had devastating consequences on red squirrels that have no immunity and quickly die from the virus.  Adding to this, red squirrels breed less frequently when under pressure and with the competitive greys using their resources, a vast decline in their population has occurred.
The red squirrel is not threatened globally, but in the UK their numbers have decreased dramatically to the point that they may disappear from mainland England within the next 20 to 30 years.  With the population dropping by 50% in the last 50 years, the best chance of still being able to see the critters is in Scotland, where 75-80% of the British population resides, or in isolated habitats such as Brownsea Island off the Dorset coast.
The 500 hectare island is run by both the National Trust and Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT), who have spent the last 50 years clearing the island’s overwhelming plague of rhododendron bushes, a project which has almost been completed.  The clearance will allow other beneficial plant species, such as pine trees to grow and support the 250 strong populations of red squirrels, which has increased by 25% in the last decade.
This optimistic news is to be celebrated, however it cannot be neglected that despite efforts the red squirrel is still subject to extinction in Britain, along with other native mammals such as hedgehogs, harvest mice, door mice and Scottish wildcats.  Despite this, some Red squirrels have been discovered with antibodies resisting SQPV, giving hope that a vaccine may be produced in the future to strengthen the population.
While scientists tinker and test in the lab, there are activities that you can carry out at home to help the red squirrels plight.  With ‘Red Squirrel Week’ happening from the 1-9th October now is a perfect time to take action. If you are fortunate enough to have a feeder that is visited by both red and grey squirrels then try to sanitise it everyday to prevent the spread of squirrel pox from greys to reds.  You could also get involved in surveys in your local area, or help by raising money for the ‘Save Our Squirrels’ charity, who are having a ‘Scribble a Squirrel’ auction online to celebrate red squirrel week. They also offer opportunities to adopt a red squirrel!
By Lizy Tinsley


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