Grey squirrels are one of the most common wild mammals seen by the public. Many woodlands and public parks have a population and a lot of people like to see them visit their gardens. Who can forget the TV advert of a few years ago, showing the agile beast making its way along a washing line to get to the peanut feeder?
Grey squirrels were introduced to the UK from the USA in 1876 (as a novelty) by Cheshire banker, Thomas Brocklehurst. Other landowners soon followed suit. Since then, the squirrels have been extremely successful in spreading throughout the country, causing a range of problems along the way. They cause damage to timber crops by ring barking and killing the tree, they eat birds’ eggs and they damage both domestic and game bird feeders.
However, more emotively, they are responsible for the spread of squirrel parapox — a virus that doesn’t affect greys but can result in nasty lesions on red squirrels. If these lesions spread into the squirrel’s mouth, they can prevent it from eating and so the animal starves to death.
Greys are not necessarily more aggressive than reds. They don’t ‘drive them out’. But because they are more adaptable in their diet, they can store more body fat over the winter, so they are better able to survive harsher weather.
While reds and greys can co-exist, it has been found that young reds fail to set up territories when there are greys around. So, the population ages and dies out.
Greys have no real predators. While desperate foxes will eat them, generally they seem to be unpalatable to most predators. Because of that, the most effective method of control is by man.
Many BASC members are assisting with a whole range of local red squirrel conservation projects throughout the UK. BASC has a large portfolio of projects we have led on or assisted with too. A lot of work has been done in Wales in recent years, and in the Midlands with the National Forest Company. We have even worked with the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency. We looked at an immune contraceptive for grey squirrels where lethal control is impractical.
Considering the challenges of dealing with a grey squirrel population, estimated at 2.5 million animals, there is a need for sharing best practice. Collaboration between those affected by this species is essential. Greys cause enormous issues for our 140,000 red squirrels. They damage commercial tree plantations and general health of our woodland health too. Some structures already exist. BASC currently chairs the Wales Squirrel Forum. The forum looks at both issues of general grey squirrel management for the Welsh Government. It also deals with the more focussed issues of red squirrel conservation. However, should there not be a national structure in place too?
Well, in fact there is. That is the UK Squirrel Accord formed by invitation of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to bring all the parties together. The general public is involved too. Accord helps to secure and expand the UK red squirrels populations and ensures UK woodlands flourish.
BASC is a board member of the UK Squirrel Accord and our work has been essential in providing messages to the government. We also fight to tackle common issues that often block individual local people, projects, as well as organisations, from successfully dealing with the issues grey squirrels cause.
Volunteering costs you your time but is hugely rewarding. Volunteering is not always about field work. There are plenty other ways to help and get involved. Click on the below links to check if there is a local project in your area.
Squirrel Accord website lists local organisations which might need your help.
The British Red Squirrel website is a great place to learn how you can get involved in various projects.