Guest Blog – Gill Hatcher, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrel Project, May 2019
It’s ‘Invasive Species Week’: an opportunity to talk about the threats non-native species can pose to our special wild places, our natural heritage, and global biodiversity; as well as what people can do to help. But often the first challenge in raising awareness is simply explaining what ‘invasive’ means. It’s not a household term, and it can be a complex – and sometimes controversial – subject to discuss.
Perhaps none more so than the grey squirrel. The grey squirrel is equally one of the most familiar examples of an invasive species in Scotland, and the most clouded in confusion, misinformation and emotion.
The eastern grey squirrel is a North American species that was first brought to Britain to decorate the gardens of Victorian stately homes. With an abundance of food and fewer competitors to contend with, they quickly settled in their new surroundings and began to spread across the country.
As the only squirrel species native to the UK, red squirrels struggle to compete with grey squirrels for food and living space. Some grey squirrels also carry squirrelpox, a virus that doesn’t harm them but is deadly to reds. As grey squirrels have moved into an area, reds have gradually disappeared; and today greys have completely replaced reds throughout most of England and Wales, as well as Scotland’s Central Belt and the city of Aberdeen.
In many of these places grey squirrels have been present for well over a hundred years, with the native red squirrels barely a distant memory. So for many people in the UK today, grey squirrels are the norm. In cities and towns, they are often one of the few wild mammals people come into regular contact with, providing a rare connection with nature. It’s not surprising that many don’t realise that grey squirrels are not native, that red squirrels were once widespread or even that the two are different species of squirrel. Before we can even begin to explain the term ‘invasive species’, we often have to start with the basics if we want widespread understanding and support for red squirrel conservation action in Scotland.
While raising awareness of the threat from invasive grey squirrels, it’s also important to emphasise that there are still many places in Scotland where red squirrels are thriving. Home to 75% of the remaining UK population, there are healthy populations in the Highlands, the Central Lowlands and parts of South Scotland. Red squirrels are under threat, but they are still very much worth saving.
Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is a partnership project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Established in 2009, its aim is to protect Scotland’s red squirrels by combating the spread of grey squirrels. With the help of landowners and volunteers, grey squirrels are being controlled through live trapping and humane dispatch in the areas where this action will have a positive impact on core red squirrel populations.
In 2017 the project was awarded a £2.46 million National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to begin a new phase called ‘Developing Community Action’. Recognising that landscape-scale community involvement will be the key to the long-term protection of Scotland’s red squirrels, the project is now focussing on building a strong network of local volunteers, providing them with the skills and resources they need to carry out red squirrel conservation work in priority areas. The first step is community engagement: building a basic understanding of why red squirrels need our help and why, at this time, control of grey squirrels is the only way to ensure red squirrels will continue to have a home here.
One way to start this conversation, and one of the simplest ways people can help the project is by reporting red and grey squirrel sightings. The sightings map contributes to our understanding of squirrel distribution across Scotland, and it could act as a stepping stone to getting more involved. There are lots of ways to take action for your local red squirrels, from survey work, to grey squirrel control, to helping spread awareness by volunteering at an event.
You can report a sighting and find out more about volunteering with Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels at scottishsquirrels.org.uk
Photograph credits; Grey squirrel -Bob Coyle, Red squirrel & community action – Jo Foo