Report from Chris Smith.
LONDON (Reuters) - The much-loved red squirrel, once found in its millions in
England, is under threat of UK extinction, a leading zoologist said on Wednesday.
Fast losing ground to the imported gray squirrel, the red's numbers have become dangerously low in its English strongholds of Cumbria and Northumberland.
The news came as ornithologists in the same region announced this week that the Lake District had lost its only breeding female Golden Eagle.
Peter Lurz of the University of Newcastle has been studying the native red squirrels.
"I'm worried that there is a real risk we could lose them," he told Reuters. "We estimate that there are only 20,000 left in England."
The sturdier grey, originally from North American forests and brought over to Britain in 1817, has stronger food-gathering skills in most environments than the red.
It has also been discovered that two-thirds of greys are silent carriers of a viral skin disease.
"We know that once the greys appear, the reds start dying of it," said Lurz, adding that the average lifespan after exposure was two weeks.
Scotland is estimated to have about 100,000 reds while populations of the animal in other European countries are under less threat -- although there too, greys are encroaching.
With the help of government conservation agencies, English Nature and Forest Enterprise, efforts are continuing to isolate the 1,000 red squirrels left in Cumbria in a captive breeding program.
Centerd in conifer forests around the Lake District, the hope is that they will find a safer home, shielded from greys.
"They could go in the UK in the next 10 or 20 years (if nothing is done)," Lurz said.
The Lake District has also lost its only breeding female golden eagle, according to ornithologists.
The bird, which reared nine offspring in 20 years, has not been seen for weeks and is feared dead, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said in a statement.
It was one-half of 422 breeding pairs of golden eagles in the UK, according to the RSPB. Its male partner is said to be circling the territory for a new breeding partner.
© Yahoo News, 7 th April 2004
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