Grey Squirrels – Part Two

I was very surprised that an experienced ecologist took the time and trouble to read my blog post about grey squirrels and commented upon it. I’m sure that it is clear that this is an amateur and personal blog. However, I do strive for accuracy and am happy to receive any corrections and additional information.

Illustration of red squirrel

Illustration from “British Mammals” by A. Thorburn, 1920 – courtesy Wikimedia

I perhaps did not make it fully transparent that greys are thought to pass on the squirrel pox virus to populations of reds that did not previously have the infection. I also said that we should not blame the greys for being more adaptable and successful than the red, which perhaps played down the link between the reduction of the red population and the increase of the grey population. My point really was that the grey squirrel is not morally responsible, the humans that introduced the grey squirrel to the UK are. I also over simplified the issue of the type of woodland that reds and greys are more successful in. This is a complex and nuanced issue beyond the scope of this blog.

However, most of the information that I used came, not from “Professor Acorn”, but from a document produced by Bristol University. This draws upon a lot of other research and goes into great detail about the types of woodland that are more beneficial to red squirrels.Β  This document acknowledges the success of the Anglesey project in which greys were eradicated by killing them, allowing the red squirrel population to thrive. However, it also points out that this success was due to Anglesey being an island and suggests that culling grey squirrels on the mainland would be costly, ineffective and potentially counterproductive. It suggests that improved habitat that particularly suits red squirrels, improving their access to food etc, along with finding a vaccine for squirrel pox would be more effective. Pretty much what IΒ  suggested, albeit in a clumsy and oversimplified way. It can be accessed here.

This document did point out that there is no data supporting the idea of biological control such as pine martens. I originally found information about the pine marten idea from this article. I am well aware that there are very few, if any, pine martens in England and Wales. Once again this is mostly due to human persecution and habitat loss. As with red squirrels and beavers it is not beyond the wit of man to reintroduce pine martens and restore their habitat.

Illustration of red squirrels

Illustration of red squirrels by Cabrera, Angel, 1879-1960 – courtesy Wikimedia

With regard to only caring about cute animals, well they don’t come much cuter than the red squirrel, or indeed the dormouse (which I shall come back to later). I agree that a creature’s conservation status should not be dependent upon its cuteness factor. Personally, I would rather spend time with the intelligent and sociable rat than a seabird any time. I find it a double standard that hedgehogs are captured alive and rehomed to protect island bird populations, but rats are eradicated by killing them. Incidentally the black rat is one of the UK’s rarest mammals and seemingly wrongly blamed for causing the Black Death according to this. Anyone who regularly reads my blog and follows me on Twitter will also know that I am a big corvid fan. I was also part of the successful campaign to save the horrid ground weaver spider from planning development. This, by the way, was an excellent example of engaging the public with an ecological issue that wasn’t obviously sympathetic. I personally feel that ecologists and conservationists need the public’s support to tackle the government and industry onslought on the environment. I note that many websites trying to get public support and donations for red squirrel conservation squeamishly refer to “controlling” or “removing” grey squirrels instead of the hard nosed scientific term, “killing”.

As for grey squirrels being responsible for the demise of dormice. Once again I believe that one can be put down to human activity, or inactivity. Dormice require a very specific habitat. I’m sure that the destruction and undermanagement of ancient woodland and removal of hedgerows has a far more significant impact on dormice than the existence of grey squirrels. As I pointed out in my original post, it is the limited habitat and resources that cause the intense competition that results in the more adaptable species succeeding to the detriment of other species. I feel that it is important that we research, learn and act to improve natural habitats. Even if we could kill every last grey squirrel in the UK, if we do not improve our woodlands and hedgerows we will still see population declines amongst our native species.

Humans have eradicated a lot of the native species from the UK, such as wolves, lynx and bears and introduced invasive species such as rabbits and deer. Restoring ecological balance shouldn’t be beyond our intelligence without just blindly killing more animals. And yes it is a sentimental reaction, but it is a scientific fact that humans react emotionally to things. When you sit in your garden or on a park bench deriving pleasure from watching a grey squirrel going about its natural business, it is difficult for the average person to think that yes its life should just be snuffed out. Perhaps it would be better if instead of throwing money at controversial, divisive and often ineffective schemes to kill animals, we all worked together to find more sustainable solutions.

Conservation and culling is an emotive and complex subject and I would invite my readers to try to get their information from a wide range of sources, and to be aware that people on all sides of the debate have their own agendas.

 

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8 thoughts on “Grey Squirrels – Part Two

  1. Unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, there is no prospect of a Squirrel Pox vaccine and even if there was, the deployment of such a vaccine would be problematic at best.
    Yes, improve the habitat for all our beleaguered wildlife, but always remember that if grey squirrels are in the same habitat as red squirrels (which they would be – there is no habitat that red squirrels favour that grey squirrels do not), then the outcome is certain; extinction of the red squirrels.
    People understandably latch onto issues like pine marten control of grey squirrels and different habitat types for each species of squirrel, to avoid having to contemplate the reality of the situation. Both red and grey squirrels occupy pretty much the same habitats and eat mostly the same things, therefore if red squirrels can survive in a particular habitat, so can the greys.
    Red squirrels can hang on longer in certain types of conifer woodland, but even if we were to replace all the UK’s woodland overnight with that type of coniferous woodland, the red squirrels would eventually become extinct. Plus, that composition of conifer woodland is not good for our native wildlife anyway and is why many areas with conifer plantations are being improved to increase species diversity. Unfortunately, this can makes it more attractive for both red and grey squirrels.
    As you rightly say, it’s a complicated subject, but the bottom line is always this: red and grey squirrels cannot coexist, even without Squirrel Pox. The greys replace the reds by competitive exclusion (they eat the food) and Squirrel Pox simply speeds things up. Therefore we have a choice; we can leave things alone and watch the UK’s red squirrels steadily disappear until they’re totally gone, or we can do what we can to slow or stop the decline.
    It’s not the ‘fault’ of the grey squirrels that they’re here, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we can only ultimately have one species of tree squirrel in the UK. The question is: which one? The native European red squirrel or the introduced American grey squirrel?
    Some say we should let things proceed here as the red squirrel is widespread in Europe, but again there is a problem in the shape of American grey squirrels introduced to Italy. Simply put, if they get past the Alps (which they will unless stopped by people), they will have the whole of mainland Europe to expand into and there is nothing to suggest the result will be any different to that in the UK. Eventually, red squirrels could become totally extinct in mainland Europe. A scary thought..
    Keep up the good work with your entertaining blog!

  2. Well, I really enjoy your posts, which are informative and entertaining. πŸ™‚ And I can always access the net should I want more detailed info.
    Keep on just as you are, RRatz. πŸ™‚

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