Conservationists in Scotland are watching the march of the grey squirrel northward with considerable alarm.
They believe the red squirrel, indigenous to the British Isles, could be completely wiped out in a generation, and they are blaming the grey squirrel, which was introduced from North America in the late 19th century.
The smaller red species has almost completely disappeared from England and Wales and greys have now breached what’s known as the Highland Red Squirrel Protection Line that runs from Montrose on the east coast of Scotland to Inverary in the west.
Conservation charities say immediate action is needed – and this means culling.
“To control them we’re basically talking trapping and shooting and when a grey squirrel’s trapped it is humanely put down, it’s actually illegal to release it from a trap,” says Lindsay MacKinley from the National Trust for Scotland. “I appreciate to some that might seem unpleasant and it’s not something anyone enjoys doing, but the reality is that if we want to conserve the reds we need to stop the greys.”
But not everyone agrees that the grey squirrels are responsible for the decline. Opponents of the culling programme cite the destruction of habitat by humans and counter claims that it is the grey squirrels that spread disease to the red species.
However, according to Ed Bramham-Jones, manager of the Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, where a red squirrel breeding programme has been yielding positive results, “the major issue we’re having is that the grey squirrels carry a virus called parapox virus, and that virus is carried by the greys – about 60 per cent of them carry it – and once it’s passed on to the reds it will kill off that population and it can be as quick as in fifteen days.”
Conservationists are is now calling on landowners, especially in remote regions of the northwest Highlands, to make their woodlands available for new populations of reds.
Three-quarters of the UK’s red squirrels live in Scotland and on islands like Anglesey and the Isle of Wight.