Saving Squirrel Nutkin

In Oxford, as across Britain, the sighting of a squirrel is not uncommon. Christ Church Meadows teems with the grey scavengers, loitering around refuse bins. Suburban streets see unwanted intruders, interested only in chewing peanut feeders – intended for the birds. Drives along country roads proffer many an opportunity to spot one, even as it’s scarpering across the tarmac in front.

However what is far more special is the glimpse of a red squirrel, the grey variety’s smaller relative. Greys cannot compete with their cousins on looks and cute-factor, what with its stubby face and coarser dull fur. The reds’ tufty fluffy ears and white tummy are quite strikingly beautiful – and don’t get started on the gorgeous rich rusty red…

The little rodent’s plight has been well-noted for many years, as numbers have dramatically plummeted to fewer than 140000. Their absence is especially acute in urban areas, for 85% are resident in more rural parts of Scotland. Now the red squirrel is protected as an endangered species across most of Europe, though it is not thought to be at risk on a worldwide level. The blame for the decline is regularly attributed to a struggle between the two kinds; however this is only one factor.

Historically Europe was home only to reds, until the grey variety was introduced from North America. Although the two are not directly hostile to one another, a disease (squirrel parapoxvirus) is carried by the grey type. This does not affect the carrier yet kills its relatives – which does seem a tad unfair. However family politics alone should not be a scapegoat. Loss of native forest habitation is another important consideration – a poignant tale across so much of the world, as deforestation clears the way for man.

Since January 2006 the UK Government has supported culling programs on grey squirrels. This facilitates a widespread reintroduction of the red variety, especially in England. However this direct method is supplementary to more humane regeneration schemes. A new four-year program, announced by the Scottish WildlifeTrust earlier this year, sees red squirrels advancing into urban areas and expanding their adaptability to new habitats. Forestry commissions, restoring the environment to an increasingly natural state, are growing in speed across the UK. The Caledonian Forest once covered swaths of the country, of which now 1% survives. The Forest has begun to be re-established in pocketed enclosures of Scots Pine and Douglas Fir, an encouragement to all native wildlife. This goes well beyond a love of red squirrels, for the schemes provide a host of mammals and birds – including pine martens, ospreys and wildcats – with a suitable environment in which to prosper.

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Such moves to support nature are always promising. So there is good news for all species – and especially for Squirrel Nutkin.