Can a vaccine save the red squirrel?

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As you're probably aware, red squirrels are an endangered species here in Wales and the rest of the UK with only a few pockets of resistance left in parts of Scotland, Wales and Southern England.

Grey squirrels may be cute to look at (we have 100's of photos sent in to our Flickr group each month) but they're actually a fairly destructive American import known as the North American eastern grey squirrel.

Now, it's not their fault that they are so successful at adapting to life in the UK but it comes at the expense of our own native species - the red squirrel; which in a beauty pagent would win hands down over their larger, loutish cousins.

Greys out compete reds for food by feeding on the ground and by being able to digest readily available acorns, which the reds can't.

As if that wasn't enough, they also carry the deadly pox virus - SQPV which they're immune to, but which kills reds, so the evolutionary scales are well and truly tipped in their favour!

To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, the Forestry Commission estimates that there are approximately 140,000 reds left in the UK - and most of them are in Scotland.

Now that might sound like quite a few but not when you compare it to the number of rampant greys, with over 2.5 million of them on the march.

Habitat is paramount in this fight to the death, as red squirrels prefer dense conifer forests where they spend much of their time high up in the canopy, hopping from tree to tree and rarely stepping foot on the ground to feed.

A red squirrel by Alan Burfitt.

In the future, designing and managing forests could hold the key to the survival of the red squirrel by carefully creating suitable habitats suitable for them.

In Wales we're now fortunate enough to have a red squirrel stronghold on the island of Anglesey, thanks largely to the red squirrel project known as Friends of the Anglesey Red Squirrels. There have even been reports of reds crossing over the Menai Straits to recolonise parts of Gwynedd which is excellent news.

More good news may be on the horizon though as scientists have made a breakthrough in creating a vaccine against the deadly SQPV squirrel pox which could be administered to red squirrels in as little as five years time.

But many believe this alone is not enough to save the species and that the only way to effectively save the red squirrel is to carry out controlled and targeted culling of the greys, a notion which doesn't sit comfortably with all conservationists.

So what do you think?

Should we let nature take its course and allow the red squirrel to vanish from our forests forever like other species such as the bear, wolf, lynx etc or do we take the approach that it is our mess (we introduced greys in the late 19th century) and should therefore clean it up?

We have after all intervened before by removing (hunting to extinction) and then reintroducing former native species. Beaver were recently reintroduced to the UK as well as other species such as the goshawk which were driven to extinction centuries ago but are now making a welcome return to our countryside.


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