Red squirrels vs grey squirrels – the battle for hearts and minds

Matthew Chatfield
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Here on the sunny Isle of Wight there are red squirrels everywhere. With the grey squirrel absent here (so far) they have no competition, and they thrive. They are not uncommon, and most months I see one or two in passing – sometimes many more. They even pop up in towns, and not that long ago one intrepid red was seen and photographed at the far end of Ryde Pier, no less. In fact, the Island is one of the most important bastions of native woodland mammals in England, with breeding and established populations of dormouse, red squirrel and bats including the ultra-rare Barbastelle bats and Bechstein’s bats.

Red Squirrel. Photograph by Ray eyeSo it’s with mixed feelings that I read of the £1M project to save the red squirrels in the north of England. I note many other commentators who have taken exception to this – on the grounds that it’s not right to kill grey squirrels, or that greys don’t actually threaten red squirrels, or even a threat to multiculturalism. I’m not sure about it either – although I wouldn’t suggest it shouldn’t be done. But this uncertainly isn’t for any of those reasons.

I read the coverage of the northern red squirrel rescue project with a certain jaded cynicism. It’s a sad fact, but ever since grey squirrels were introduced to the UK mainland, they have been gradually advancing. Nothing, so far, has put any significant dent in this progress. It’s also beyond doubt that they can outcompete the reds and do infect them with a virus, making it more or less impossible for the two species to coexist. This huge conservation project is a fantastic effort and exercise on co-operation and long-term working. That is highly to be commended. Nevertheless, I remain to be convinced that any such exercise, unless it involves the total eradication of the grey squirrel, will provide a sustainable future for the red squirrel on the UK mainland. All the time the greys are present, if the management and grey-shooting programmes let up, the achievements of any red conservation project could be reversed in a few decades. My solution? No, I’m not suggesting that nature be left to take its course – of course the project is the right thing to do, and I hope it works. But it is not enough. The only place in the UK where there is a sustainable population of red squirrels which is not under any direct threat is on the Isle of Wight. About half that sum has been spent on the Isle of Wight in the last few years planting new woodlands with squirrels in mind, but more is needed. Let’s see if a bit of that resource being lavished on those poor reds up north could ‘trickle down’ to their southern fastness.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

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