Red squirrels fight back

The latest news in the battle to save red squirrels from the marauding American grey is that some of the appealing little mammals might be resistant to the deadly parapoxvirus carried by greys. Scientists at the University of Liverpool say that some red squirrels in an isolated colony at Formby, Merseyside-which was devastated by a squirrelpox outbreak in 2008-have contracted, yet survived, the virus.

However, squirrel charities say the only way to get reds back is to cull greys. ‘I’m not sure we are yet in a position to say reds are resistant to the pox,’ says Craig Shuttleworth of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust ( ‘A lot of these issues are peripheral-we still need to get rid of the grey squirrel.’ Giles Clotworthy, of the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project (, which is working with landowners to reintroduce reds to two areas, agrees: ‘We need to clear the greys first.’ The Cornish project, supported by The Prince of Wales, is making steady progress to reduce greys through trapping and the use of wafarin.

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‘The programme is going better than we dared hope,’ says Mr Clotworthy. ‘We’ve also seen a sea-change in attitude-most people who were neutral or opposed to the culling of greys have changed their minds.’ The fact greys are also bad for trees and songbirds, particularly those that build open-cup nests, is filtering through. However, even where grey squirrels are absent, as on the Isle of Wight, protecting the endangered red isn’t straightforward. ‘As long as we keep the greys off, we’ll manage, but the reds are under threat all the time, from roads, development and buzzards,’ says Helen Butler of the Wight Squirrel Project (

Defra is to announce a five-year plan for squirrels in 2014. ‘We will be working with the Forestry Commission on some aspects, including tying in grants for forestry with squirrel control-it’s no good planting new trees if squirrels destroy them,’ explains Secretary of State Owen Paterson. ‘It’s very clear that we have to control greys if we are to manage the overall population.’ This will be music to Dr Shuttleworth’s ears. He hopes the media will be ‘more robust and stop dancing around what needs to be done when it comes to dealing with grey squirrels; they are an invasive species and we need to cull them’.

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