BEATRIX Potter has immortalised many of our native mammals in her famous children’s books.
None more so than Squirrel Nutkin who lost half his tail to the beak of Old Brown the tawny owl who tolerated his cheek for quite long enough before eventually deciding to teach him a serious lesson.
There is probably a moral there for all of us charged with bringing up young animals, amongst which I include young humans too.
Nutkin was of course a red squirrel, a species that since Miss Potter’s time has seen a serious decline in its numbers throughout England and Wales and to a much lesser extent in Scotland too. That decline comes as a result of habitat loss; the invasion of its territory by the more robust and aggressive alien grey squirrel; and pox virus infection which is normally well tolerated by the grey but devastates red squirrel populations.
Red squirrel distribution in England includes small isolated colonies on the Isle of Wight, in Dorset and on Merseyside, and substantially larger numbers in the northern counties of Northumberland and Miss Potter’s beloved Cumbria. About 75% of Britain’s reds, however, survive in Scotland and maybe a quarter of these are in the southern Scottish border areas.
It has been known for some time that grey squirrels were encroaching into Scotland bringing pox virus with them and the disease has been diagnosed as the cause of death in red squirrels in Dumfries and Galloway.
So, in a co-ordinated effort to try and safeguard the future of red squirrels in Scotland, the Scottish Government earlier this year allocated funds for grey squirrel control with the intention of creating a buffer zone around key red squirrel habitats in the south of Scotland. The purpose is to stop the encroachment of grey squirrels into the area, either northwards from the north of England or southwards from Scotland’s Central Belt.
Much of the funding made available to the project has been spent on employing a number of squirrel control officers with the remit to trap and humanely destroy any grey squirrels moving into the affected area. Naturally enough, a great degree of co-operation is needed from local landowners and other interested parties like conservation groups, all of which can provide local surveillance and knowledge about where the greys are to be found.
As would be expected, there is a degree of opposition to the scheme from animal rights groups such as Advocates for Animals, and also from individuals who thoroughly enjoy the antics of greys in their gardens and surrounding areas and who can’t see the logic behind killing one type of squirrel to save another.
It is an interesting argument and one that is in many ways difficult to rebuff.
I personally have no issue with controlling grey squirrels which are only here as a result of man’s interference and are a clear and major reason for the red’s demise. In terms of British wildlife the red is of great ecological importance and probably of world significance.
The grey is unthreatened in its own habitat of North America and is indeed considered there to be a traditional food source in much the same way as wild rabbits were once thought of here.
Interestingly, in Britain attention has recently been drawn to a squirrel’s culinary attributes to the extent that some game butchers are said to be selling hundreds of squirrels a week and are unable to satisfy demand at around £3.50 a squirrel.
In many ways then culling of grey squirrels is a win-win situation, providing respite for the reds and a healthy meal option for the adventurous. For those of you who would like to learn more, The Red Squirrels in South Scotland Project has a useful website, www.redsquirrels.org.uk, which gives details of all the work that is going on into conserving the red squirrel in this part of Britain.
There are opportunities to help out with the project, particularly by providing information on squirrel sightings in the area, both reds and greys.