The biggest threats to red squirrels in the UK today are the spread of grey squirrels and squirrel pox, a disease which is carried by grey squirrels. There are two main strands to red squirrel conservation: containing and preventing further spread of grey squirrels, and Trees for Life’s own project: creating new red squirrel populations in the northwest Highlands, far away from grey squirrels. You can learn about these and other initiatives below.
Increasing the range of red squirrels
Red squirrels were once present across most of the UK. Today, they are largely absent from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with 75% of the UK population in Scotland. However, even within Scotland, many of their former territories remain unoccupied. There is ample suitable forest habitat across the northwest Scottish Highlands but, as there are large areas of open ground in between these sites and current red squirrel range, they are unable to re-colonise these areas naturally.
Trees for Life is carrying out a ground-breaking Red Squirrel Reintroduction Project. We are aiming to restore red squirrels to at least ten forests where they were once present, creating new populations far away from the threat of grey squirrels and squirrel pox, and increasing both the number and geographic range of the species in the UK.
The Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation has also carried out red squirrel reintroductions in the Scottish Highlands and similar work has been carried out in Anglesey by Red Squirrels Trust Wales. Captive bred red squirrels have been reintroduced to a series of suitable forests that are free from grey squirrels and these populations are successfully expanding.
Controlling grey squirrels
Grey squirrel control is being carried out by a number of organisations: in Scotland, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS), in Northern England Red Squirrels Northern England, in Wales Red Squirrels Trust Wales, and various groups in Northern Ireland. Grey squirrels are caught in traps and humanely killed. This work is keeping grey squirrel populations at bay and there is some evidence that red squirrels are now moving back into areas which have been cleared of greys.
Red squirrel and pine marten research
Some exciting research in Ireland, carried out by Dr. Emma Sheehy, has shown that the spread of the pine marten through Northern Ireland is pushing back grey squirrel populations, and that red squirrels are then re-colonising these areas. This is thought to be because grey squirrels are heavier than reds and spend more time feeding on the forest floor, so are more easily caught by pine martens. Dr. Sheehy has now replicated her research in Scotland and found the same effect.
This natural control of greys could potentially provide an incentive for the reintroduction of the pine marten to England and Wales, from where it is still largely absent.