Rural campaigner Prince Charles was happy to be seeing red whilst on the Balmoral Estate in Scotland last week, as the local squirrels and the Prince have become so familiar that they even visit him in his office.

Charles was thrilled to be playing host to the ‘most irresistible of British native mammals’, for whom he has been an ardent supporter. Recently the Prince became the Patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust , a national body established to ensure the conservation and protection of the red squirrel in the UK.

Red squirrels have been declining across the UK since the introduction of greys over 100 years ago, and now survive only in pockets of England, Wales and Scotland.

‘Unlike many people in this country I am lucky enough to see red squirrels at Birkhall, on the Balmoral Estate, where I have been indulging them with hazelnuts. They have become remarkably tame and are coming into the house,’ said Prince Charles at the launch of the Trust.   

The Prince is indeed so fond of these ‘utterly charming creatures’ that he has suggested that they should become our national mascot, and even has a topiary tree fashioned into the shape of a squirrel at his Highgrove residence in Gloucestershire.

In return the squirrels seem keen to become acquainted with their royal neighbour. ‘Sometimes sitting at my desk at Birkhall I hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet, and occasionally they do the ‘wall of death’ around my office. They are very special creatures,’ he added.  

Charles is insistent that the red squirrel could become entirely extinct within the space of a decade, if measures currently in place to curb its’ decline are unsuccessful. Furthermore he cited the plight of the red squirrel and the honey bee as examples of man’s short-sightedness in an increasingly throw away society, and remarked: ‘as stewards of this earth we should all feel deeply ashamed.’

Scotland is home to about 75% of the UK’s remaining red squirrels. For more information on red squirrels, or to find out how to help go to www.rsst.org.uk

  • Angus Macmillan

    Victimising Grey Squirrels

    1. Native Species?

    A key criterion set by the conservation industry for determining if a species is sensitive is that it should have evolved with all other species within its own ecosystem and not have been introduced or assisted by man to arrive at what is regarded as its natural location. In short, it should have got to where it is by its own efforts and evolved naturally. If man assisted it, it is regarded as non-native

    This is confirmed in Scottish Natural Heritage’s website:
    ‘Native species are presumed to be those that are present in Great Britain by natural means. In general they migrated (or were transported by other species) into Great Britain after the last Ice Age, without the assistance of humans.’

    ‘Non-native species have been introduced to Great Britain, either deliberately or accidentally, by humans.

    This criterion is only credible if the actions of humans are mistakenly regarded as outside of nature. As every single thing we do, without exception, is a product of our evolution it follows that if we transport an animal we find attractive to our homeland, it is an entirely natural act – just as a bee might transfer pollen from one plant to another.

    Also, if it is important to conservationists that a species evolves naturally over millennia in Britain to earn its ”native’ species status, then it should be equally important that the same species evolving in a different natural environment abroad, should not be regarded as ‘native’ to this country. They can’t have it both ways!

    It is well known that the grey squirrel was brought from America to England in the late 19th Century but less known that ancestors of the current population of red squirrels in the UK have been largely introduced from various parts of Europe and are taxonomically different from the indigenous population. These animals evolved within a wide range of climatic and environmental conditions and associated with different flora and fauna encountered across the part of the range they inhabited, so for conservationists to argue that these influences are not important is to argue against their own concept of ‘native species.’

    Both current populations of squirrels, red and grey, have been introduced to this country and there is no evidence that even the earlier red squirrels evolved here continuously from the time of the land bridge to Europe around 10,000 years ago.

    A fairer method of determining whether an animal is native to this country would be to regard all born in this country as ‘native’ by birth, just as we are, irrespective of colour, background or success. To expect racial tolerance within own population but condemn and kill wildlife on the basis of its ancestral background is extremely hypocritical.

    2. Habitat

    If conservationists want to assist the red squirrels to survive, they should be improving their habitat by planting suitable conifer trees in which they thrive, instead of the political and identity-crisis fad of wallpapering the countryside with native broadleaves that favours the greys’ expansion and the reds’ demise. The need to plant trees that favour red squirrels to act as a barrier to the greys’ expansion is well known to the Forestry Commission.

    3. Squirrel-pox Virus (SQPV)

    Conservationists tell us that grey squirrels are the “cause” of the red squirrel decline through the transmission of squirrel-pox virus (SQPV) but there is no evidence to support this. It is merely speculation presented as fact.

    It is known that the disease characteristics are similar to other poxvirus infections and that most are resistant to drying. This can allow infected lesions or crusts to remain infected for a long time thus allowing the spread of the disease throughout the forest environment by almost any creature that comes into contact with it. Indeed, Scottish Natural Heritage admit they do not know the route of transmission and that “possibilities include being passed by ectoparasites, fleas, lice, ticks and mites which may transfer from animal to animal in the dreys”. They also acknowledge the virus may be airborne spread. Research by McInnes et al in 2006 acknowledges “the possibility that the virus is endemic to the UK and that other rodent species inhabiting the same woodland environment could be harbouring the virus

    The Forestry Commission have admitted under a Freedom of information request that “no routine testing of live red squirrels is undertaken” and they “are not aware of any scientific evidence one way or another as to whether or not there is a resistant population of reds out there”. So it is quite wrong to claim red squirrels have no immunity to the disease. Indeed, recent research by London zoologists has established that red squirrels are beginning to show signs of natural immunity.

    Early in the last century, out of forty-four districts in England where red squirrels had the disease only four districts had grey squirrels present. This suggests that SQPV has been within the red squirrel population for around a century at least and that grey squirrels are victims of a campaign of unfair vilification. Some people even have the audacity to claim that SQPV somehow arrived around the time it was discovered in 1983 but that is about as ridiculous as claiming America didn’t exist before it was “discovered” by Leif Ericson – centuries before Christopher Columbus was born.

    4. Immunocontraception

    Immunocontraception was deemed immoral in the 1930s in mainland Europe, when it was proposed against sectors of the human population. It is equally immoral to use it against wildlife, as it could affect non-target species and introduce a significant risk of unintended consequences. Unscrupulous conservationists could also use it as a weapon of mass destruction of any species in an attempt to control nature. How long before this dangerous technology, if perfected, could be used against the human population? It is not a route that should be considered by right thinking people.

    5. Culling of Grey Squirrels

    Culling doesn’t work except in closed environments such as islands. According to research it would cost £200,000 per annum to control grey squirrels in Northumberland’s Redesdale Forest alone. – Rushton et al (2002) – and would require to be repeated endlessly as greys will quickly re-colonised voids, sometimes within a few weeks. Culling greys across Scotland will be an expensive and futile exercise. It is well known that culling can lead to an increase in population as those left alive enjoy a better habitat and produce more young.

    “Squirrel culling is not a new phenomenon. Some 60 years ago the Ministry of Agriculture started to encourage people to kill squirrels, offering—I remember it only too clearly—a shilling a tail. I became a very wealthy young man at that time, as we had a lot of grey squirrels in the area and I did not need a lot of encouragement to do something about them. When the government at that time had paid out some £250,000, they decided that that was enough. There was no perceivable difference to the squirrel population.” Lord Plumb, March 2006

    6. Humane dispatch or brutality

    What is Humane? “Humane” and “humane as possible” are words frequently used by conservationists to describe the killing of wildlife. So what exactly do these words mean or are they merely euphemistic references to brutality?

    Conservationists are currently engaged in what they call the “humane dispatch” of grey squirrels by clubbing them over the head with a blunt instrument. However, Scottish Natural Heritage’s area manager for Shetland rightly condemned the brutal killing of twenty-one grey squirrel pups by a local fisherman, by clubbing them over the head with a blunt instrument. He said, “This is a shocking case. The degree of casual cruelty shows that there is still a great deal of ignorance and prejudice about grey seals”. But let us not forget that SNH, together with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, are currently engaged in the “humane dispatch” of grey squirrels by clubbing them over the head with a blunt instrument. This amounts to gross hypocrisy and double standards.

    Putting aside the argument of whether the animal is a “protected” grey seal or a grey squirrel, it is logical to say that if the method of dispatch is similar, there is no excuse for describing it differently. All sentient animals feel pain irrespective of whether they are “protected” or otherwise.

    7. Act of violence

    Clubbing a grey squirrel over the head is an act of violence and is being promoted and perpetrated nation-wide by government and red squirrel groups. Scientific evidence shows that those who have little regard for the welfare of animals are likely to have a similar attitude to their fellow human beings. Abuse breeds abuse, and in our ever-increasing violent society, what example is it to younger generations that violence and killing is an acceptable solution to a perceived problem of not being native to this country?

    In reality, rather than in the arbitrary world of conservation, all squirrels born in this country are as “native” by birth as we are, irrespective of our colour, background or success. To expect tolerance within our own population but condemn these animals on the basis of their ancestral background is extremely hypocritical and only one step removed from racism.

    It should be appreciated that squirrels, of any colour, are not “ours”. They are independent parallel mammalian populations that inhabit this planet the same as we do and should be afforded the same respect and consideration to live out their lives that we expect for ourselves.

    The Grey Squirrel
    Native by birth – Condemned by origin

    Please read the website
    http://www.grey-squirrel.org.uk