Spaniel enlisted in fight to save Scotland's red squirrels

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

media captionThe springer spaniel can tell the difference between a red and a grey squirrel

He might be the most unusual recruit to the fight to preserve the native red squirrels of southern Scotland.

Rory the springer spaniel has developed a skill which is helping in the struggle on the conservation frontline.

For he helps gamekeeper Richard Thomson identify whether a grey or red has been caught in a trap before they can even see it.

The gamekeeper then knows whether he needs to prepare to release the creature or destroy it humanely.

The battle to boost the red squirrel population has been going on for some time across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders as well as some areas further north.

One key part of the effort is to trap and kill grey squirrels which can act as carriers of a deadly virus.

Squirrel pox has no apparent effect on them but is fatal to their red cousins.

image captionRory has a different reaction depending upon which type of squirrel had been trapped

A number of outbreaks in recent years have prompted the grey squirrel control programme.

Mr Thomson is part of that effort and, with Rory's help, he monitors about 100 traps on the Hoddom and Kinmount Estate in Dumfries and Galloway.

The traps can't tell the difference between a grey and a red - but the spaniel can.

When a grey has been caught he will bark furiously but is completely silent when a red has been captured.

His different signals alert Mr Thomson, telling his owner whether he will have to release or destroy the animal inside.

The policy of trapping and killing the greys is a controversial one but it appears to be having the desired effect.

Mr Thomson said the number of reds being trapped and released in the area had risen from just a couple in the first two years of operation to more than 100 in the last 12 months.

image captionIan Kerr believes that without the trapping programme the red squirrels would have been wiped out

"The red squirrel is our native squirrel - it's a beautiful animal," he said.

"The grey is an invasive species - it shouldn't be here and it does do a lot of damage.

"I don't take any joy in it but I don't have a problem with removing them to conserve the squirrel that should be here which is our native red."

He said it was great to see the scheme actually achieving its results with a little bit of canine assistance.

"I'm incredibly pleased about the whole project," he said.

"You do some things and you feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall but with this project, in four years, we have completely turned the tables."

Ian Kerr, a grey squirrel control officer with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said he believed that without their efforts the "very vulnerable" red squirrel population could have been wiped out.

"I suppose the biggest part of the project is to stop big populations of grey squirrels building up across southern Scotland," he said.

"If we hadn't been doing this the red squirrels in Dumfriesshire would have been gone long ago.

"I reckon three years and the greys would totally take over the best habitats for the red squirrels - they would be gone."

And a small part of the debt they owe for their survival is to Rory the springer spaniel.

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