Without action, it is thought the red squirrel population in England will be extinct within ten years. The declining species is under threat by the invasive grey squirrel, which spreads the fatal squirrel pox disease, as well as negatively impacting woodland habitat. Reclaiming Reds aims to protect and contribute to the UK wide plans to decrease the grey squirrel population as part of the Invasive Alien Species act and government 25-year Environment Plan. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about the project.
Aside from being an iconic British native mammal, red squirrels are a key species helping woodlands. Red squirrels bury their food to save it for colder months, however they often forget where they left all of it, leading to new trees growing, and making them engineers of the forest. Many believe that red squirrels prefer pine forest but this isn’t true, they move into pine forest because they can’t compete with grey squirrels in deciduous woodland. But otherwise red squirrels would naturally be found where grey squirrels are common.
Unfortunately, with the high number of grey squirrels in the area, red squirrels would not survive if they were introduced into the area at this time. Through the management of grey squirrels in the local area and the surrounding areas, red squirrels from the existing stronghold in Formby and along the Sefton coastline will naturally disperse to the area. We may apply for the appropriate licenses to introduce red squirrels in the future when it is safe to do so.
We would encourage you to visit the Red Squirrel Walk, at the National Trust in Formby, to be sure of seeing red squirrels. Elsewhere in the North West populations and sightings are less common.
The term ‘native’ is described as a species that naturally occurs in a geographical location, and the consensus of the scientific community is that we backdate this to the last Ice Age.
In the 18th Century, mass hunting and habitat loss resulted in a huge decline of the UK red squirrel population and nearly resulted in national extinction. Due to this loss, populations of red squirrels from Scandinavia within continental Europe were brought over to the UK to reinforce the remaining UK red squirrel population. This can cause some confusion as to the ‘nativeness’ of our UK red squirrels. The red squirrels found in both the UK and continental Europe are genetically the same species, Sciurus vulgaris, and therefore reinforcement from the continent does not make the red squirrels now in the UK “non-native”.
In comparison, grey squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, are native to North America and genetically are a different species to the red squirrel. Genetics of a species influence ecosystem interactions, and therefore when non-native species are introduced to an environment, there is a possibility they will outcompete the native species and thus make them an invasive species – invasive meaning to cause harm or negatively impact the ecosystem. There are many non-native species that have been introduced that do not become invasive, we call these ‘naturalised species’.
The grey squirrel does not fall into this category – it is invasive as it causes harm to our natural ecosystem. The native American trees have evolved to coexist with grey squirrels and aren’t as affected as the UK woodland to the damage grey squirrels do. Our native trees have evolved with red squirrels in the same way.
Unless action is taken now, native red squirrels will become extinct in England within the next ten years. Humanely controlling numbers of non-native greys is not only vital for protecting the survival of red squirrels, it is a Government requirement. Grey squirrels are subject to legal restrictions to discourage their spread and prevent additional threat to red squirrel populations and damage to woodlands & tree planting programmes part of the 25-year environment plan.
It is widely proven that greys are largely responsible for the disappearance of red squirrels due to the spread of squirrel pox, a disease which doesn’t affect greys, but is fatal to red squirrels and can rapidly kill whole populations. The grey squirrel also has a negative impact on woodland biodiversity by stripping tree bark and damaging timber and specimen trees, which further threatens the survival of the native reds. The conservation effort to preserve the red squirrel species is very carefully considered and well researched.
Some of the ways that grey squirrels pose a threat to reds:
- Grey squirrels are a non-native, invasive species introduced to the UK from America in 1876. They outcompete reds for food and resources, and breed at a higher rate. This puts a strain on red squirrels and reduces their chance of survival.
- Along with other diseases, grey squirrels carry the deadly squirrel pox virus. Greys are immune to this, but reds suffer with painful sores and lesions, and most individuals that contract the virus will subsequently die.
- There are approximately 2.5 million grey squirrels currently in the UK, compared to 140,000 red squirrels (70% + of which are in Scotland). Due to the overwhelming number of grey squirrels, reds are being pushed into isolated populations reducing their population and leaving them vulnerable to extinction.
The project uses live trapping according to best practice guidelines, followed by trained staff or trained volunteers dispatching the animal in the most humane way possible. Our control methods are designed to ensure public safety and minimise stress to the animal. These methods have been deemed most humane by the European Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (2005). More information about the standard approaches to grey squirrel control throughout the UK can be found in the following UK Forestry Standard Technical Note.
A lot of research has been done into the most successful management strategy for red squirrel conservation. The control of grey squirrels is proven to have worked successfully in other parts of the UK and is considered the best approach to ensure that Red squirrels do not become extinct in the England in the next 10 years.
Unfortunately, there are currently no other methods that will produce the required results, and the need for immediate action is crucial to saving red squirrels from national extinction.
We want to make sure our activities are in line with the best practice available. We are hopeful that there will soon be a way in which we can control the population of grey squirrels without the use of lethal methods.
There is ongoing research investigating a non-lethal management method in the form of fertility control for grey squirrels. This study aims to develop an immunocontraceptive that will be taken by grey squirrels from feeding boxes. The contraceptive will alter the reproductive success of grey squirrels, thus controlling the population in a non-lethal and less labour-intensive manner. Unfortunately, this project has not yet created a contraceptive that can be safely administered, however if they succeed, we are hopeful that this will change the way red squirrel conservation is undertaken throughout the UK.
This study cannot continue without funding and is currently seeking £250,000, so if you would like to support this vital research, donations can made here. www.squirrelaccord.uk/donate/
The Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order came into effect in October 2019, which means it is an offense to release any species of animal that “is not ordinarily resident in and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state”. According to government guidelines grey squirrels fall into this category and it is therefore illegal for them to be released into the wild in the UK. The details are here: www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2019/527/made
Residents in the project area are eligible to receive a live capture squirrel trap for their garden. A trained volunteer will deliver and place the trap. They will explain how to set it and check it, as well as how to lock it if you are unable to check it for a period of time. Residents are not required to dispatch grey squirrels, trained volunteers are available to do this. However, individuals who have joined the community trap loan scheme can also be fully trained in dispatch on request. Please go to our Community Trap Loan Scheme page to learn more.
There is speculation that red squirrels can only live in coniferous woodlands as UK red squirrels have been seen in these type of areas throughout the UK in recent years. Whilst it is true that red squirrels can survive in coniferous woodlands, these types of woodlands are at the edge of their habitat tolerance range. The main reason we see populations of UK red squirrels in coniferous woodlands is because grey squirrels prefer to inhabit mixed and deciduous woodland where the food variety is more favourable. This competition forces red squirrels to the edge of their habitat range and thus the misconception that they prefer conifers is created. Before red squirrels began to decline in the UK, we saw them widespread in deciduous, mixed, and coniferous woodland, and we only need to look over to continental Europe to see how well they thrive in a variety of habitats.
Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats to all wildlife worldwide, and we cannot ignore the severe impacts it continues to have.
It is true that over time, our UK red squirrel population has declined through habitat loss and increased urbanisation, however the effects of competing with grey squirrels rapidly increases this rate of decline.
On continental Europe where there are no grey squirrels, reds are beginning to adapt well to urbanisation in the same way grey squirrels can live in urban areas of the UK. We can therefore hope that when we remove their competitor, red squirrels will also adapt to UK urban environments taking the pressure off being restricted to small fragments of woodland.
When protecting a native species, we must consider protecting it in all aspects of its native range, and for the red squirrel, this includes certain islands such as Anglesey and the Isle of Wight. However, protecting these island populations would not impact the status of red squirrels on mainland UK, nor aid in restoring the balance to mainland ecosystems. We must also be cautious in the assumption that all islands would be suitable, for example there is no evidence red squirrels ever lived on the Isle of Man, and so introducing a population of red squirrels there could prove catastrophic for their environment in the same way as the introduced grey squirrels have had on the UK mainland.
Its important to be aware that in areas where reds and greys live in close proximity, we could end up supplementing grey squirrel diet instead of reds.
If there is a possibility of the Squirrel Pox virus (SQPV) entering the population, encouraging red squirrels onto feeders will rapidly spread the virus as feeders can harbour disease. Therefore, we don’t recommend supplementary feeding in this circumstance.
If you see a squirrel, red or grey, we would love to hear from you! You can record your sightings via our sightings page here.
If you see a grey squirrel in a trap, it is likely our control ranger or one of our volunteers will be nearby to check this on their twice-daily rounds. Please be aware that it is illegal to release a grey squirrel once it has been caught and bites from squirrels can be dangerous, so please do not approach it, or attempt to open the trap.
We have compiled a list of relevant scientific references which can be found here. We will update this list as new research is published.
There are lots of ways you can help us in our mission to bring red squirrels back to Knowsley!
- Be a part of our citizen science work and submit a squirrel sighting
- Do you live in the Knowsley area? Join our Community Trap Loan Scheme
- Become a Red Ranger volunteer
- Part of a school or community group? Book a workshop
- Follow us on social media, share our posts and get the word out about Reclaiming Reds!