Report from Chris Smith.
With the south of Scotland now home to 75% of the UK's red squirrel
population, Susan Flockhart finds nature lovers divided over drastic
measures to turn the tide of a continuing grey invasion.
FROST crunches underfoot and overhead, naked branches shiver against the cold blue sky. In these still, clear conditions, within the woodland heart of Scotland's prime red squirrel country, the prospect of catching a glimpse of bushy tail or tufty ears seems enticingly good. But as the morning creeps into afternoon, Sciurus vulgaris is proving frustratingly elusive.
"Siesta time," suggests Richard Riley, head ranger of the Duke of Buccleuch's Drumlanrig estate. The climate may be on the Arctic side of Mediterranean, but he's not kidding. "Squirrels," explains Riley, "often have an afternoon siesta after feeding, then come out before dusk."
We're standing on the ouskirts of the Duke's elegant Victorian garden, at the point where topiary gives way to wilderness, looking at a tall, red-barked spruce on which a small wooden box has been nailed. It's a red-squirrel feeding box: strategically placed so that the Duke - a wheelchair-user - can watch the creatures from the window of his grand home, Drumlanrig Castle.
Gloomily, I reflect that even state-of-the-art binoculars wouldn't help him now ö although I'm assured this corner of Dumfries and Galloway is one of the best places to spot Scotland's native squirrel: a shy creature whose future is furrowing nature conservationists' brows, and has prompted Scottish Natural Heritage to launch a new strategy aimed at protecting the species. Once widespread throughout Britain, red squirrel numbers have been declining for 50 years, and are now restricted to small pockets of England, Wales and Scotland - which has around 75% of the UK population, a quarter of that concentrated in the south of Scotland.
As we push into the woods, the signs of recent squirrel presence are everywhere. Riley points towards a bunch of optimistically sprouting daffodil shoots, and a small indentation in the earth which he identifies as a recently-excavated nut store. Yes, they really do squirrel food away for later use although, as Riley points out, their lean time is in summer when nuts and seeds are scarce - not during winter, when, as story-book legend has it, they emerge from hibernation to dig up their stash.
Squirrels don't hibernate, insists Riley, who declares himself horrified that this myth continues to be peddled. Reading a bedtime story to his son, he was appalled recently to find himself reciting a Squirrel Nutkin-esque tale even his six-year-old recognised as tosh. "He knows quite a lot about squirrels," says Riley, indignantly, "and he was mortified". They're devilishly clever at sniffing out their stores, though. When researchers buried 100 paper-wrapped peanuts, squirrels located 99 of them, which they unwrapped and reburied.
Time for a more sinister twist in the tale. For here's where the evil grey (Sciurus Carolinensis) makes its appearance, since those dull-coated American infiltrators - first released in Britain in 1876 - are pretty good at snaffling their auburn cousins' nut stores. One European study recorded greys digging up 66% of reds' foodstuffs. And although even SNH admits "the precise reasons for the red squirrel's decline are unknown", the greys' rapid expansion is believed to play a part.
"They were first introduced to England near Cheshire," explains Zoe Smolka, Scotland's first red squirrel conservation officer, with the Dumfries-based Red Squirrels in South Scotland. "At the time, a lot of plants were being introduced to decorate gardens, and stately home owners seemed to think squirrels would make a nice addition. No-one anticipated how successful they would be, or the serious consequences of their spread on the red squirrel population."
Numerically, the greys undoubtedly have it. Their population is estimated at more than two million against only around 160,000 reds. Why can't they live together? The problem, apparently, is that while both eat similar diets, greys hold the evolutionary advantage, being capable of digesting large seeds from broadleaved trees. Reds, meanwhile, are heavily dependent on traditional Scots spruce trees - which are currently in decline. What's more the larger greys eat more and can digest unripe acorns and seeds. Reds - which have to wait till fruits ripen - are being pipped to their food supply, resulting in weight loss and inability to breed. The "grey tide" is considered a major threat to reds' survival, which is why SNH's strategy - as well as targeting - land management, including plantations that favour reds over grey - also prioritises control of the invader, whose status is that of vermin.
It gets thornier; "control" translates as "culling". Live capture and shooting are the only legal methods of dispatching the creatures, and Smolka - the red squirrels' champion in south Scotland - demonstrates a typical wire cage trap. Baited with maize - a favourite grey squirrel snack - they are covered and placed on the ground, where greys generally feed. To minimise suffering, traps are checked twice daily, and any reds immediately released. As for the unfortunate greys, Smolka says: "Some people shoot them in the trap, but we advise you get a sack, put it over the end and when the trap is open, the grey goes into the sack. You then take it in the sack to very solid ground, like concrete or stone, and give it a very hard blow to the back of the head."
It sounds hideous, although training and detailed instructions are given to landowners and Smolka insists the method is humane. "But most keepers shoot them directly in the sack," says Riley. "Because if you're fiddling about with a sack and the thing gets out, you've committed an offence. It's illegal to release grey squirrels into the wild."
Do they deserve the death penalty for the heinous crime of adapting marvellously to their adoptive habitat? Riley is pragmatic. "Reds are our native squirrels," he says. "Greys are not. We've got to protect our native squirrels over an invasive species."
All the same, neither SNH nor Red Squirrels in South Scotland advocate widespread culling; greys, they point out, may well be the only wildlife some people see. The goal is for both species to co-exist. But in red squirrel strongholds where greys are beginning to appear, control is considered the only way to give the natives a fighting chance of survival. "It's our duty to try and protect reds where they still exist," says Smolka. "We have to target grey squirrel control, and we only carry it out in areas where it will benefit the red squirrel population."
Greys, it appears, do more than steal nuts. It's believed they carry parapox - a virus that doesn't affect them, but can be passed to reds, to whom it's fatal. "It produces weeping lesions and scabs," says Smolka, "and they die within two weeks".
Although partly blamed for wiping out the red squirrel population south of the Border, the virus has yet to be detected among Scottish greys. But Red Squirrels in South Scotland is taking no chances. Smolka shows me one of the parapox testing kits that are distributed to local landowners. Complete with handling gloves, scalpels and vials for decanting blood, the kits are designed to be used on dead squirrels, which means virtually the only reds tested are road-death victims - a distressing fact of squirrel life which has prompted some enthusiasts to build treetop-level bridges aimed at preventing the creatures from crossing treacherous tarmac.
Local squirrel groups are integral to SNH's strategy, monitoring red numbers and lobbying against landscape developments - such as deforestation or wind farms - that might disturb the native squirrel's habitat. Not all "local activism" is helpful, however, and part of Smolka's job is to educate people with garden feeders about diseases that can break out if the contraptions aren't kept clean.
The feeders may also attract uninvited guests. Riley, who lives three miles from the castle, was disgusted one morning to see a grey pilfering from his own garden feeder. Although greys remain rare in this area, their presence is beginning to be felt. The first was shot at Upper Nithsdale, shortly after the foot-and-mouth outbreak, and 47 have been counted in the past two-and-a-half years. How they got here is anyone's guess. Perhaps, speculates Riley, a pair stowed away on one of the straw lorries that continued to serve local pig units during the foot-and-mouth crisis.
We've arrived at a makeshift hide in a woodland clearing half-a-mile from the castle. And suddenly, there's a flash of red, and a lissom streak of Scotland's heritage darts down the trunk of a tall Norwegian spruce, opens the feeder and tucks in. Siesta time over, a second squirrel appears and the pair begin chasing each other from branch to branch.
It's the mating season, explains Riley, who provides a fascinating David Attenborough-style commentary on squirrel behaviour. "See that wag of the tail? It tells other squirrels to keep away. That little tap dance of the feet is another warning."
With their bright coats and trademark tufty ears, these creatures are undoubtedly beautiful. But does the desire to conserve Scotland's natural heritage justify the slaughter of greys, for the crime of being less native and less pretty? Not in the eyes of animal rights campaigners.
"It's not acceptable to cull," argues John Robins of Animal Concern, who believes that, having interfered with nature by introducing greys, we must simply now accept they are "part and parcel of the landscape". It would, he adds, be "a terrible shame if we lost red squirrels from Scotland. But we've no business to go and wipe out another species to try and redress the balance."
Meanwhile the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals insists it "only supports a cull if it's deemed absolutely necessary", and the only methods it condones are shooting and lethal injection. When it comes to the sack method, it seems confusion reigns. Red Squirrels in South Scotland says its methods are accepted by the UK Red Squirrel Association and the RSPCA. The RSPCA agrees it's a widely used culling method that can be humane when performed by trained operators. The SSPCA, however, has concerns, since there is no guarantee the squirrel will be killed instantly. "Killing an animal with one blow is legal, but if it takes two blows, it's illegal," says spokeswoman Doreen Graham. The SSPCA, Red Squirrels in South Scotland and SNH ö who grant-fund Red Squirrels in South Scotland and take a welfare cue from SSPCA ö are discussing the issue.
Clearly, the last thing SNH wants is to provoke the kind of furore that erupted over hedgehog culls in the Uists. And no-one could deny Red Squirrels in South Scotland places high priority on humanitarianism, with strict rules designed to prevent unnecessary suffering. But, for people like Zoe Smolka and Richard Riley, working at the coal face of Scotland's cold, brutal, but ultimately beautiful, natural world, the bottom line is that targeted culling is unavoidable.
With Italy's grey squirrel population now "out of control", they argue that, without decisive action, red squirrels might disappear from Europe altogether. And Tufty's last siesta will go on forever.
© Sunday Herald, 14 th March 2004
|Return to index||Return to Exotic Scottish Animals||Return to Grey squirrels|