ALICE ASHCROFT: The plight of the red squirrel

The red squirrel is in decline across the UK   
Picture by Harry Hogg
The red squirrel is in decline across the UK Picture by Harry Hogg

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The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust officer looks at the work being done to save the native species.

If you take a moment to glance up at the trees, you will likely see flashes of silver amidst the golden hues of autumn. Squirrels are very busy at this time of year, spending almost every waking hour collecting nuts and seeds, and then burying them in and around their woodland homes.

In doing so, they create a network of fully stocked and well hidden pantries which will see them though the cold months of winter.

Despite how widespread they are, grey squirrels are not native to Britain. They originate from North America and, for reasons unknown, were released in the UK by the Victorians in 1876. It is thought that they may have been introduced as a decorative feature for parks and gardens, but no one knows for sure.

The only squirrel native to the UK is the red squirrel, but there are just 140,000 of them left. Through competition for food and shelter, and by spreading the deadly squirrelpox virus, their durable grey cousins have driven them out of their homes and claimed dominion over the British Isles, leaving only a small number of our native reds in very select locations, like the Isle of Wight.

Grey squirrels do extremely well in the type of deciduous woodlands prolific in the UK, and thrive on the large, calorific seeds that they provide. Red squirrels can survive on smaller seeds from coniferous trees such as pine, and for this reason most UK red squirrel populations are restricted to coniferous woodlands where greys have struggled to get a foothold.

Red squirrels can do well in isolated areas such as islands and certain upland conifer-dominated areas where greys have failed to infiltrate. There is a healthy population of red squirrels at Bouldnor Forest on the Isle of Wight; if you’d like to see them for yourself, autumn is an excellent time of year to visit.

In most places, however, greys out-compete reds hands-down. It’s a hard life for a red squirrel, so they are afforded the highest level of protection under UK law. Red squirrel strongholds are protected and closely monitored, and conservationists are able to provide habitats by managing and planting networks of woodland.

The Wildlife Trusts and other conservation organisations have been working hard to conserve the red squirrel for many years, and it is hoped that careful habitat management will mean we see more tufty red tails in autumns to come.