Red or grey – is it black or white?

I’m not a red squirrel biologist but as I understand it, this is pretty much the situation as it stands with the species’ conservation: Red squirrels in the UK occupy only fragments of their former range with their remaining stronghold being the pine forests of northern Scotland. The primary reason for their decline is believed to be the introduction of the non-native grey squirrel which has spread and out-competes the red as well as passing on a potentially fatal disease. Where embattled and cornered red squirrels are threatened by the ongoing invasion of greys, conservation action is being taken primarily in the form of grey squirrel ‘management’ (aka culling). Is that it in a nutshell? No doubt someone will tell me if not.

Assuming my simple analysis is correct, here’s my question: Is it feasible, or desirable even, to defend red squirrel strongholds in the long term by fending off greys? How long can we keep this up for – 5 years, 50 years? 500 years? My understanding is that we’ll need to keep this up forever if we’re to retain red squirrels as a viable UK species.

Here’s my next question then: Is this a good use of time, effort and funding? Nobody wants to see red squirrels disappear (nobody I know at any rate) but surely we face a stark choice if we accept that the present regime is untenable:

1. We succumb to the relentless march of the grey and accept the extinction of UK reds.

2. We invest our energies in completely eliminating grey squirrels from the UK.

Option 2 has many barriers. It’s expensive, time consuming and some would argue impossible to completely eradicate grey squirrels such is their stranglehold (I would personally suggest it’s difficult but not impossible). Then there’s the question of societal sensitivities – for many people, grey squirrels provide their only contact with nature and never having seen a red squirrel, form part of their cultural backdrop. Finally there is a moral argument that challenges the need to kill any healthy animal regardless of origin.

So with all doors presently closed, we have no choice but to carry on as we are. But didn’t we already establish that wasn’t feasible?

I don’t know the answer to this dilemma by the way, but I do know that trying to marry political and cultural sensitivities with ecological integrity is at best, damned tricky and as a consequence we tend to tread the ground that upsets fewest (human) agendas – the sticking plaster approach. In my humble opinion with the consequences of indecision now well documented, the sticking plaster is no longer good enough: we’re talking major surgical procedure here.

What would you do if you held the keys to the piggy bank (or to the gun cupboard)?

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8 thoughts on “Red or grey – is it black or white?

  1. Preservation of the red squirrel in the UK is hardly a burning global conservation issue. Reds are plentiful in countries that have more and better habitat for them than us.

    The complete eradication of grey squirrels in the UK is almost certainly impossible given government resources allocated to wildlife conservation. It would be left to interest groups, some of which would be more effective than others and who wouldn’t fully cooperate with each other, leaving pockets of greys that would rapidly recolonize cleared areas. It may be that the only affordable and practical solution would be to follow the New Zealand example and protect endangered native species on managed island colonies (and/or peninsulas) from which invasive species are excluded.

    And maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. There would be huge public opposition to a widespread cull and therefore little political will for it. Many people would oppose it on animal welfare grounds and also see it as elitist when, as Pete mentions, grey squirrels are one of the few wild mammals that anyone can interact with and enjoy, regardless of their income or post code.

  2. An interesting debate and a dilemma to which I doubt there is any one satisfactory answer. One suspects we humans are guilty of misplaced sentiments as we tend to categorise some species as adorable with oohs and ahhs including the red squirrel and demonise others such as the magpie as evil and nasty, with little objective evidence.
    Not so long ago Chris Packham provoked some controversy when he suggested that pandas might be best left to face extinction given the extraordinarily high cost of conserving them.
    The other day I got an unsolicited phone call from someone wanting me to make a financial donation to saving the Tiger. Now I have no desire to see tigers wiped out but equally have no burning preference to save them ahead of the whale, the panda or the orang utan. Nor do I wake up in the middle of the night lamenting the passing of the northern white rhino.
    So what’s the answer to Pete’s puzzler. I honestly don’t know. We can take heart from the fact that just recently a report from Anglesey noted that the population of red squirrels was increasing significantly on the island and provided the greys don’t negotiate the Menai Straits there is every likelihood this growth will continue.
    I’m not sure I’d want the keys to the piggy bank or gun cupboard. We might be better investing in measures to ensure that man didn’t further damage the planet on which we all live and let nature take care of itself.

  3. Loosing the Red would for me be horrible as I am in love with the little animal. But then I live in the Netherlands. And for us there are no greys. We do have a small population of pallas squirrels (Callosciurus erythraeus). Because they were afraid of the same problems as you have with greys they caught the most of them and sterilised a group of them to let them die out naturally. Or what can pass for nature since we stopped them from breeding.

    But to be honest to kill or eradicate a species to conserve another species is a decision I would rather not make. I prefer reds since I grew up with them, never knowing greys. But that is not the same for the current generation. They know both and might even find greys normal since they live in the parks near their home.

    But when you save the red, will you then also save their environment? Here in the Netherlands we lost reds due to habitat reduction. Not to greys, so should we fund an organisation to stop the enlargement of human settlements and save the red? I know that such a thing will never happen. Economy always wins.

  4. We have the same issue here in Ireland. The red population has been decimated in the eastern half of the country but survives west of the river shannon as well as isolated pockeyts in the east. Although there is some interesting research going on linking a reduction in numbers of grey squirrels to a resurgence in the population of pine martins in certain areas. The research is to see if the anecdotal evidence is true. The scientists are looking at pine martin scats (shit!) for evidence of diet. The theory is that because the grey squirrel spends more time on the ground and is bigger, heavier and less nimble than the red it makes easier prey for the pine martin. You can read about the project here:

  5. On an international scale Reds are as common as muck and there are species and habitats that we have that are far more important, Coasts, estuaries etc.

    One a British scale we can forget that Reds were once common below Kendal, far to many Greys to do anything about, however there spread in the north has not been so great, for example they were first released into Hazelhead Park in the 1920s and they have not spread out of the city anywhere near as quickly as they have further south suggesting to me that in Scotland there advantage over the Reds is not so great outwith the urban areas.

    This could mean that if we continue to weaken populations around the urban centers then they will not get the chance to completely take over, if they were ever going to. So i do think it is worth targeted culling.


  6. As much as I enjoy red squirrels and would like to see them thrive, I think Terry has it right. There would be little political clout for the extermination of greys and even if it did take off, it’s such a massive task, it’s difficult to see how it could be wholly successful.

    Some island colonies already exist such as Arran and it seems that for now these are safe but isn’t it a natural process in species distribution that ‘foreign’ species colonise new areas and sometimes out-compete native ones? I’m sure there are numerous examples of this throughout history except back then, there were no humans legislating over the legitimacy of it.


  7. Hi there. From everything I have read you pretty much have it right regards Grey and Red squirrels. I live in Toronto, Canada, and earlier this year, my wife, Jean, and I were in Ireland where we came upon the rarely seen Red Squirrel. To us, they actually look somewhat like our Canadian Red squirrels, but boy, do they have long ears! We were shocked to learn that U.K. and Irish Red squirrels are contracting the pox virus from Grey squirrels, and dying. We have far to many Grey squirrels here at our feeders. But up north near Algonquin Park we have seen a few Red squirrels. We feel very lucky to have seen two Red squirrels in Ireland. We have posted some of our pictures and video of our Red squirrel sightings in Ireland, and Canada for anyone interested at:

  8. I used to love watching the grey squirrels in the woodlands near my home on the
    South coast of England. However, since Christmas 2012, I have realised that they
    have all disappeared. My golden retriever used to have such fun chasing them up the
    trees, but now the woodlands are completely devoid of squirrels and I find it very
    upsetting. There are three woodlands within a short distance of my home and I would
    be very grateful if someone could throw some light on this situation for me – surely I’m
    not the only person in the area to have noticed they are missing!

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