Friend or foe?

As I arrived at the place I sit to write in the woods I found it already occupied… by three squirrels; a mum and two babies. The little ones were lovely, and so unafraid. They let me creep up close to them and the nature lover in me had a real ‘ahh’ moment. They were feeding beneath my bird feeder and looked so healthy, clean and new.

The bird lover in me had a bit of a ‘hmmm’ moment as there is only one untrashed bird feeder left in the wood right now and the squirrels are taking food I want the birds to have. But I can’t be too grumpy. They need food too after all.

It is the biologist in me that is having the real problem with the squirrels, the ‘argghh squirrels’ moment. These squirrels are grey squirrels you see, and I know that relatively recently, they ousted our red squirrels. By rights, we should have reds in our woods, and it is really down to us as a species that they are no longer there. We released the grey squirrel into our country in the 1870’s, and in little over 100 years, the population of red squirrels in Wales and England has crashed as a direct consequence of the spread of the grey. The reds were in our area when I was at university – now they are gone.

As an evolutionary biologist, there are lots of things I would love to see returned from extinction. Imagine a mammoth recreated from preserved DNA, a moa, a dodo. But there are ethical questions involved with such undertakings – not least, why are we doing this? Where would we put a mammoth now its ice-age tundra is gone? I do not believe we should return animals into existence just to gawp at them in a cage for our own amusement. But returning a moa to New Zealand would be a different matter – the habitat is still there, they were pushed to extinction so recently and the fact that they are not there is solely down to humans hunting them. Unfortunately, these moral quandaries are largely academic, given we are unlikely ever to be able to recreate these animals, whatever ‘Jurassic Park’ would have us imagine.

Red squirrels though, are not extinct. If we interfere again, we can repopulate the areas they have been lost from. And in this case, in my opinion, the moral dilemma is not really there – we have the habitat (though no longer in the abundance we once did), we drove the reds into decline by introducing greys, we need to sort it out. As a biologist, I want to see the native reds back in our woods. But then there is the gritty question of how we go about it.

I don’t particularly like the idea of culling grey squirrels – anyway, it feels rather like trying to bail out a very fast river with a very small bucket. But, in order for the reds to repopulate, the grey squirrels have to be moved on somehow. We have been allowing a local group to remove squirrels by shooting, and the buzzards that nested in the wood did their bit by feeding squirrel to their chicks. As we might have predicted though, it’s not making a massive impact – our wood is still ‘grey squirrel central’. It is good to know therefore, that it seems there may be a better way of controlling the grey squirrel population, a way that saves not only one native species from extinction in England and Wales, but two.

In March this year a paper was published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B by Emma Sheehy et al. It’s title says it all: ‘Native pine marten recovery reverses decline of red squirrel by suppressing grey squirrel populations.’ The pine marten is another species we drove almost to extinction in England and Wales by forest clearance and by shooting for fur and predator control in the 19th century, and it just so happens there is a move afoot to return it to it’s rightful place in its former haunts. In 2015/2016 the Vincent Wildlife Trust carried out a feasibility study  with 39 pine martens being released into mid Wales in two waves, and work is now underway, led by the Wildlife Trusts, in the hope that reintroductions can be carried out in the Forest of Dean. Unfortunately, our wood is not yet in an area targeted for pine marten reintroduction, though pine martens have a healthy and slowly expanding population in the county next door.

As a woodland custodian, I would love to see the balance between red and grey squirrels tipped towards our native species. There have been occasional sightings of red squirrel tantalisingly close to us. I just hope that soon, if our area is not targeted in the reintroduction of the pine marten, one adventurous (hopefully pregnant) pine marten wanders our way…

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