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Red Squirrels & Grey Squirrels

Northern tufty-botherers in scientific dust-up

Matthew Chatfield
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Red squirrels, the little furry darlings – they need our help! Yes, if about fifty million column-inches are to be believed then we can all join in to help fight the introduction of grey squirrels and the decline of the native red. It’s suggested that by keeping the grey terror at bay in the north of England maybe we English can keep a population of our red friends. A great deal of money and effort has been spent on trying to do just that. At the same time money for other species conservation efforts has come under increasing pressure, so perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Natural England have published a report from some heavyweight scientists to see if the resources expended on red squirrel conservation in northern England have been well-used. The results make uncomfortable reading.

Red squirrel roadsign

Whilst it’s not all bad news, it seems that not everything is going very well – and the problem isn’t just the grey squirrels but also the people. The report has some rather blunt suggestions, and some people are not going to like it. So, what does the report conclude? In the introduction, the best that can be summoned up is that:

The report confirms that red squirrels are still widely found throughout the North of England, and that the work carried out by the various organisations has played a significant role in ensuring that people can still see these mammals across a wide area.

These words are carefully chosen – they don’t say that red squirrels are doing well, that the money has been well spent, or that anything we have done has helped the species. Although most of the media coverage of this report doesn’t go beyond this vague reassurance, a read through the detail of the report reveals that this is perhaps the only positive gloss possible on the what is otherwise a rather worrying document. It’s particularly significant given that the northern England red squirrel conservation effort is the most well-known and certainly the best-funded of all UK species conservation projects. Lessons undoubtedly can be learnt here that have important parallels in many other less prominent schemes. Here’s a summary of some of the main points of concern in the report.

1. Too much effort is being expended on public awareness and community involvement at the expense of practical work on the ground. The report says:

A fundamental impediment in the approach by Save our Squirrels has been an imbalance in the relative resources directed towards practical conservation measures and towards engagement and community development… This has resulted in the over-emphasis and over-delivery of engagement objectives to the detriment and under-delivery of on-the-ground objectives ” where the majority of resources should be targeted. [For example], the project team includes only three Conservation Officers and two and a half People & Wildlife Officers.

This is quite radical stuff, especially for Wildlife Trusts and lottery-funded schemes for whom community engagement is a given, indeed an important source of funds. It’s unfashionable and almost heretical to suggest that, say, manning a squirrel stand at a local summer fête, is less successful in protecting squirrels than, say, managing woodland. Nevertheless it’s not hard to see that this is the case. If you haven’t got much money, using it all to tell the kids about Tufty is pointless if Tufty’s already gone. As the report concludes dryly, “Currently, it is unclear how increased levels of awareness are translated into increased funding and conservation success on the ground.”

Red squirrel in Berkshire. No, not really. It's a joke, see? I went to Legoland!


2. We don’t actually know how many squirrels there are, either red or grey, nor does the current strategy enable us to find out in any useful way. The report says:

With few exceptions, data collation has been inadequate as a basis from which to evaluate and adapt on-the-ground conservation activities. One significant limitation has been the widespread absence of systematic data on the abundance of squirrels.

This really isn’t any good, especially combined with the first point. It says a lot about the funding policy that our society has adopted for this kind of work when we can pay for community awareness work but not basic scientific rigour to evaluate whether what we do actually works. We may as well go back to the schemes of the 1940s and 50s when people were given a bounty to shoot grey squirrels – millions were shot but the impact on the population was negligible. Despite this such schemes went on for years at considerable public expense – largely because people enjoyed shooting squirrels and thought they were doing good by doing so. It seems archaic and naïve to us, but are we perpetrating the same illusion upon ourselves by imagining that the fun activity of awareness raising (for example, writing blogs about squirrels) will in itself contribute to the conservation of the reds?

3. The large number of differing organisations involved in red squirrel conservation has led to inefficiency and acrimony, which has actually compromised red squirrel conservation rather than advancing it. The report says:

The different approaches of the organisations have led to a divergence in the philosophy and focus of the overall conservation strategy. This has been exacerbated by a number of factors and perceptions, such as the organisations‟ differing ethos, personality clashes, and feelings of disenfranchisement from the planning and delivery that have led to dysfunction between the different organisations.

The report really goes to town on this particular point of co-ordination, describing a “fragmentation of effort with a lack of a joined-up, co-ordinated strategic direction and open public disagreement between “official” organisations such as Save our Squirrels and the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership.” Even more pointedly, the report makes a comparison with Scotland, saying:

In Scotland, the recent direct involvement by the Minister and implicit government support in the campaign to conserve the red squirrel has brought about a coherent and cohesive squirrel policy. This kind of political support is clearly not present south of the Border.

This is getting close to political comment, and one could question whether the personal involvement of a minister is really that useful – except for that ‘engagement and community development’ thing that the report’s already poured a little cold water over. Or perhaps they have more respect for ministers in Scotland than the English do. I could go on. But you’ll probably want to read it for yourself. It’ll take some reading as there are not many soundbites in this report – which perhaps accounts for the lack of coverage. But make no mistake, this is not just about red squirrels, nor the north of England. This is an evidenced analysis of the way in which English species conservation has been heading for the last couple of years: and we have been found wanting. Perhaps we humans need to take a little time to step back and sort ourselves out before we start trying to put other species in order.

Matthew Chatfield

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

2 thoughts on “Northern tufty-botherers in scientific dust-up

  • John Harworth

    True – SOS just made “jobs for the boys” and achieved not one red squirrel saved. Utter madness and such a horrible waste of opportunity. Thank goodness there is now a more efficient organisation in place actually doing conservation WORK (but still spending *far* too much on back office staff) with people in the field and i hear there are loads of volunteers up North too..

  • It doesn’t surprise me at all that engagement and community development are promoted at the expense of practical conservation. Just look at the vacancies on any conservation sits vac page.


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