Red squirrel

Courtesy Toivo Toivanen and Tiina Toppila  Public domainKurre5.jpg

red and Grey squirrels Conservation Issues.

More years ago than I care to remember, as a young naturalist discovering the countryside and its inhabitants, it was not unusual to see the red squirrel, immortalized in children's books by Beatrix Potter as " Squirrel nutkins ". Now decades later I would have to visit the woodlands of Cumbria and Northumberland, or travel across the border into Scotland to see this beautiful animal, in the wild occurring naturally, in any significant numbers. It is worth noting that the red squirrel Nature Reserve at Formby,close to the Sefton Coast { Merseyside} are doing admirable work in keeping  a thriving, viable population within the confines of the reserve.

The red squirrel is today included on the Red List of Conservation Concern and as a consequence as attained the status of Priority Species, and as such a Species Action Plan {S.A.P.} has been formulated  and is currently being implemented by various conservation bodies under the auspice  of the U.K. Biodiversity Action Plan {B.A.P.}

So what are the reasons for the red squirrels plight ? Whenever, conservation of the red squirrel is spoken of or written about, inevitably the grey squirrel will be mentioned in detail. In the U.K. the grey squirrel, an alien species from America,appears  everywhere the red used to flourish, thus they are generally blamed for the red's demise. In this the case ? The debate among naturalists is whether the larger, more adaptable grey has drove the red out or merely filled the gap vacated by the reds misfortune.

As always other complex factors all contribute to an animals decline. For instance let us study the life style and habits of the native red squirrel. An important factor is their diet. Red squirrels are seed eaters and they rely heavily on pine cones but they will also eat the the seeds out of the cones of larch and spruce. Other sources include fungi, berries and young shoots. In spring and summer they will also take birds eggs. The larger grey is far more adaptable being able to survive much easier in broad-leaved woodland where they can be seen regularly scurrying along branches in their quest for food. Grey squirrels will take beech nut, horse chestnut fruit {conkers} and acorns. They are not afraid to find food at ground level, while the red is much more arboreal by nature.

Food does not only affect their day to day survival but has an important baring on their breeding success. If there is a dearth of food available during the autumn the following seasons breeding success will be poor. The heavier the female is before she becomes pregnant the larger the litter is, and more likely the young are to survive.

It is a popular misconception that squirrels hibernate  for they do not, thus, they rely on hidden food stocks to see them through the coldest months. To this end studies have shown that the grey has a much better memory recall than the red, again another example of the their superiority.

Another factor is predators birds of prey and in particular the goshawk who is skilled and deadly hunter in coniferous woodland, the reds' favoured habitat. Pine Martens also take their toll especially on the young and weak. Loss of habitat and fragmentation of habitat is another worrying trend as far as the red squirrel is concerned. But by far the most crucial factor is the squirrel pox virus.

Below---Sometimes the red squirrel has grey in its coat but the ear tufts are the identifying feature.

Squirrel Pox a horrible disease.

The virus is a particularly nasty disease which kills red squirrels within a matter of weeks of contacting the disease. In red squirrels it causes skin ulcers and lesions, the lesions also discharge from around the eyes, mouth and feet. The hapless creature becomes increasingly lethargic as the disease gets established. These lesions tend to remain in a wet condition thus, spreading the disease to other reds that come into contact with a carrier.

Grey squirrels also carry the virus but they have evolved a greater immunity to it, and it rarely proves lethal to them. Conversely red populations can be decimated by it. Mortality rates  of infected reds in the wild are 100%. The first case recorded in the U.K. was confirmed in East Anglia in the 1980s, and was confirmed locally {Lancashire} in 1995/96.


Grey Squirrel

Courtesy of BirdPhotos.com CC BY-SA 3.0 LicenseEastern Grey Squirrel.jpg

Above the Grey squirrel, confusingly, may have some red fur, however , they lack the ear tufts at all times.

The Red squirrel can easily be ----

The red squirrel can easily recognized by its russet coat although colours can be variable as the top photograph reveals. They are small creatures 180-244mm long;adults weigh about 350gms {greys weigh about 500-600gms} The most recognizable feature is the ear tufts {absent in greys} that give our native species an attractive dainty appearance. The ear tufts are always prominent in winter. The grey is a much more stockier, robust creature.

The Species Action Plan for the red squirrel takes all these factors in to account. Organizations involved in the Plan  include Natural England {formerly English Nature}, The Forestry Commission, Wildlife Trusts and red squirrel groups nation wide.

The red squirrel has legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 {as amended}. They are a Schedule % species which means it is an offense to kill, injure, take,possess or sell any red squirrel or to destroy, damage  or obstruct access to any place which they use for shelter, protection or breeding, or to destroy or disturb them while they are there.

Along with the water vole the red squirrel is the U.K.s most threatened  mammal species. I sincerely hope that the implementation of the ongoing action plans  halt the decline. Should this eventually succeed we, as nature lovers, will owe a great debt of gratitude to the conservation organizations involved. It is hoped that the creature will continue to overcome its adversity and survive in the wild in order  that our grandchildren and their children will have the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat rather than having to rely on books, as is the case for many children of today.

 The robust grey is here to stay.

Courtesy of grendeljkhan{Flickr}  CC BY-SA 3.0 License


Conservation updates

August 2011---The Lancashire Wildlife Trust is urging the public to be vigilant after the deadly squirrel pox virus returned to the red squirrel stronghold on the Sefton Coast. Conservationists have made the call after the body of red squirrel was found at Ainsdale Merseyside. Expert analysis carried out by the University of Liverpool has confirmed that the animal died of the squirrel pox virus.

The discovery is a blow to efforts to help population of red squirrels in Ainsdale and Formby {north west England}  recover after it was ravaged by the pox virus three years ago. The Wild Life Trust's Conservation Officer  for north Merseyside said; " This is the first case for 18 months and we are particularly concerned because it is very close to where the first outbreak occurred. Our red squirrel population had started to recover from the two devastating out breaks in 2006 and 2008" 

July 2012--Red Squirrel Conservation Updates

Over 1200 hours of work by volunteers and staff this spring has created a new picture of the native red squirrel's current geographical range in northern England. "Red Army" volunteers and staff from the Red Squirrels Northern England RSNE conservation partnership visited 239 woodlands across Northumberland, Cumbria, Merseyside, Durham and North Yorkshire, to see which woodlands the red squirrel still occupies.

New maps now show that red squirrels are still living in woodlands across Cumbria and Northumberland, well beyond identified strongholds such as the Kielder forest, plus red squirrels are still present in the Yorkshire Dales, the Sefton Coast in Merseyside and County Durham.

Red squirrels were found in 113 of the 239 woodlands systematically surveyed and are still present across at least five northern counties of England. To read more and to view the map click on the links banner on the right hand side of this page. scroll down to Wildlife Extra click-this will take you to the sites home page. 

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