Grey Squirrels

The most commonly seen squirrel in the UK is the grey, Sciurus carolinensis.  These are actually native to the Eastern part of North America and were introduced to the UK in the 1870s.Photo of squirrel

Grey squirrels are now a common sight in our parks and gardens. They will make good use of bird feeders. Some people will spend a fortune on fancy feeders to deter these intelligent, agile rodents, often to no avail. The money would be better spent on putting more food out so that there is plenty for the birds and squirrels to share.

Photo of squirrel on feederSquirrels do not hibernate. They will gather food stuffs and bury them as winter stores. This December in the UK has been particularly mild, meaning that the squirrels have been foraging plenty of food. As they are wearing their thick winter coats they have been appearing to be somewhat chubby. Apparently there has been some “fat shaming” of squirrels on social media. I feel that this is a human hang up and rodents would only ever be proud of their successful conversion and storage of food as fat.

Greys are often blamed for the demise of the native European red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, which is now very rarely seen in the UK. However, I feel it is unfair to blame the misfortunes of the reds on the success of the greys. Grey squirrels are much more adaptable when it comes to food and habitat, this has proved useful in the face of the destruction of so much woodland, particularly coniferous woodland that the reds thrive in.

Illustration of pine marten

Pine marten chasing a squirrel. Author: Walter Heubach. Courtesy Wikipedia

The greys have also developed better immunity to the pox virus that is decimating the red population. However, given time and better support for their habitat and food sources, the reds will also become a healthier and more immune population. Human activity has caused the red squirrels’ problems and human activity is what will save them. One interesting theory is that helping to increase and spread the population of another of our endangered native species, the pine marten could solve the problem. Pine martens love to eat squirrels. Red squirrels being smaller and lighter than greys can escape pine martens easily, whereas the greys will fall prey to them. Being intelligent animals, it has been shown that grey squirrels will avoid areas inhabited by pine martens, meaning there will be no competition for the beleagured red. Save our forests, save our pine martens, save our red squirrels. Meanwhile, enjoy the antics of the loveable grey squirrel in your garden. Even if the pigeons do object to having to wait their turn.Photo of pigeons



5 thoughts on “Grey Squirrels

  1. Much as I enjoy your posts, I need to point out some inaccuracies in this one. I’m sure they were completely unintentional and probably derived from the websites that put out misinformation about the red squirrel – grey squirrel situation.
    The first and most important point is that red and grey squirrels cannot co-exist. Simply put, grey squirrels out-compete red squirrels and when you add the threat of Squirrel Pox transmission from greys to reds, the reds have no hope. This is why grey squirrels continue to replace reds wherever they come into contact with them, as they’ve been doing for over 100 years.
    It is also worth remembering that the native red squirrel is by no means confined to coniferous woodland where it is not in the presence of grey squirrels. They simply become confined to coniferous woodland when greys appear in the area and this is inevitably followed by the extinction of the red squirrels in that area. This is exactly what has been happening throughout the UK since grey squirrels were introduced and is why we have very few red squirrels left.
    You state that “given time and better support for their habitat and food sources, the reds will also become a healthier and more immune population”. This is simply not the case, as an extinct population cannot become healthier and more immune. Grey squirrels are inexorably replacing red squirrels throughout the UK and the only way to stop it is to remove the grey squirrels, as has been done in several areas, most notably Anglesey in North Wales.
    The idea that pine martens can aid the survival of the red squirrel is based on findings in Ireland where the pine marten population is quite high. This is simply not the case in the UK, except possibly in some areas of Scotland. The pine marten is largely absent throughout England and Wales, as well as large parts of Scotland and will never be at a high enough density to have an effect on the grey squirrel population.
    Another thing that is often conveniently overlooked by the animal rights people is that grey squirrels do a lot of harm to our native wildlife in general. Because grey squirrels can live at densities sometimes greater than 10 times that of red squirrels, their impact on the environment is much greater. Both species of squirrel will raid birds’ nests and because of the greater population density of grey squirrels their impact is much greater than that of the red squirrel. A typical density of red squirrels would be 0.5-1 squirrel per hectare, but grey squirrels have been recorded at densities as high as 10-12 animals per hectare!
    Another species that is directly affected by the grey squirrel is the dormouse. The dormouse is a rare and secretive animal that has to compete with squirrels for food. Again, the high density of grey squirrel populations compared to that of the red can have a large impact on food resource availability for dormice.
    Animal rights is a topic close to my heart. As a conservationist and ecologist, though, I know it’s not just a case of saying we shouldn’t ‘control’ some species for the benefit of others. The degree of concern from animal rights activists seems to be directly proportional to the ‘cuteness’ of an animal. There is far less fuss made about the killing of rats, mice and crows than there is about the killing of grey squirrels.
    However, fortunately those who take the trouble to understand the situation properly and learn about the ecology of squirrels and their interaction with each other and other species, usually realise that the grey squirrel is doing a huge amount of harm to our native species and red squirrels in particular. The only way to reduce this harm is to reduce the numbers of grey squirrels. There is no other way.
    In case you’re wondering who I am, I’m an ecologist and conservationist with over 40 years experience of wildlife. I was part of the team that saved the red squirrels of Anglesey from imminent extinction 15 years ago (there are now red squirrels throughout Anglesey and they’re spreading onto the mainland – if the grey squirrels had not been removed, reds would have been extinct on Anglesey 15 years ago).
    Much of the misinformation about squirrels in the UK is put out by ‘Professor Acorn’ whose views are not scientifically credible and are based solely on the idea of it being a bad thing to kill ‘sentient creatures’. He then tries to find ‘facts’ to back up his premise, that are often little more than uninformed conjecture. Simply put, if he had his way there would be no control of invasive non-native species, which would inevitably lead to the extinction of red squirrels, white-clawed crayfish and other native species that are threatened by non-native species.

  2. Pingback: Grey Squirrels – Part Two | rambling ratz

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