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Can a vaccine save the red squirrel?

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Martin Aaron Martin Aaron | 11:58 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011

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.

red squirrel by alan burfitt

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.



  • Comment number 1.

    I honestly must say I had intended to make light of your situation and post a recipe for squirrel dumplings. But even this conservative is appalled at the wildlife losses you all have suffered. I can't imagine a landscape devoid of bear, wolf, lynx or beaver. Honestly, cousins-across-the-pond, I beg of you not to be squeamish about culling the greys. Get on with it before you lose another native species. There are a number of dishes the local pub could prepare as a salute to Welsh and Scots heritage; think of the meat pies, etc.



  • Comment number 2.

    Indeed Ken,

    You can now buy grey squirrel meat from butchers and supermarkets in certain parts of the country and the odd squirrel recipe occasionally finds its way onto gastro pub menus.

    I for one would have no qualms about eating it as it would help save a native species, is very low in fat and very tasty by all accounts but as ever, not everyone is happy about it.

    Our continental friends eat a lot of rabbit too - again a very tasty meat but not widely eaten here in the UK. I've no idea why not, as it too is a very lean, healthy meat.

    I guess if it's cute and furry then people are loathed to eat it, no matter what the economic and environmental benefits are.

    The way things are going; we're all going to have to make some big changes to the way we eat and more importantly WHAT we eat, as our food stocks diminish with ever growing populations, and our oceans become devoid of our favourite fish such as cod and tuna.

  • Comment number 3.

    "I for one would have no qualms about eating it as it would help save a native species, is very low in fat and very tasty by all accounts but as ever, not everyone is happy about it."

    Yeah, I'm one of them people who is not happy about that.

    I hear many 'anti-grey squirrel' people call these beautiful creatures 'Tree Rats'........would you eat a rat?????

    We blame the grey squirrel for the decreasing red squirrel population. Well people, get your history books out and you'll find we've been getting rid of the red squirrel habitat for hundreds of years.

    As always, we blame something else for the destruction of british wildlife when it is always humans who are at fault.

    Read about in books, the internet or whatever......humans are the biggest threat to british wildlife.

  • Comment number 4.

    Indigenous people all over the world eat rats to supplement their diet? Personally I'd only eat one if there was nothing else on offer but onto squirrels...

    I agree humans are the biggest threat to wildlife the world over but it's about taking responsibility for our actions.

    We introduced greys to this country, a big mistake as they clearly do not belong here but we also have a responsibility to put things right, surely?

    Habitat is obviously a large part but the facts are that greys out compete reds for food and infect them with a deadly disease so even if the country was covered in forests - tree to tree, the reds would still be in trouble.

    Conservationists are fighting an uphill battle against many invasive plant species, many of which are choking our waterways and destroying the habitats and wildlife that live within the delicate eco-systems they invade.

    Should we just except that this is how it is or actually do something about it instead?

    Humans may well be the biggest threat to wildlife but in come cases, humans are now the only chance, some species have from becoming extinct.
    Sadly we can't turn the clock back.


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