The Death of Squirrel Nutkin

Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day, or, as it’s more commonly known, #squirrelappreciationday. Here’s my appreciation of Britain’s Squirrels:

In the 1800s, Red Squirrels were on the brink of extinction in the Scottish Highlands, because of destruction of forests. A Red Squirrel could once have walked from shore to shore across Scotland without its feet ever touching the ground. In the 1800s that was no longer possible; it still isn’t. Trees now cover only 18% of Scotland and just 10% in England. Now, in the 2000s, Red Squirrels are on the brink of extinction in England, Wales and Northern Ireland because of the lack of forest and the introduction of Grey Squirrels.

Red Squirrel - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

In the 1800s Red Squirrels were fashionable for rich people with large Scottish estates. The Government was persuaded to reintroduce Red Squirrels to the Scottish Highlands using Squirrels from England and Sweden. By 1900 Red Squirrels had spread and were causing financial damage to commercial conifer plantations. From 1903 the Highland Squirrel Club was set up: It sounds like a fan club; it wasn’t. From 1903 to 1946 they killed 102,900 Red Squirrels and paid bounties for their tails, packed in boxes and sent by train.

Red Squirrel - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Red Squirrels have gone from being nearly extinct to being reintroduced as a garden ornament to being persecuted to being threatened once again.

There are now only 120,000 Red Squirrels left in Scotland and there are so-called ‘conservation’ organisations trying to save them again. How are they doing that? Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is doing it partly by killing Grey Squirrels. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland Red Squirrels United is doing it through using £3m of Lottery funding partially by, yes, you guessed it, killing Grey Squirrels. And the Red Squirrel Survival Trust? Yes, you know what they get their volunteers to do. Multiple wildlife organisations have persuaded thousands of people to donate and to volunteer to kill wildlife, thinking that they are helping to conserve it.

Grey Squirrel - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

How did Grey Squirrels get to the UK from North America? They were imported as fashionable additions to rich people’s estates. You’ve heard that one before, haven’t you? Yes, it’s exactly the same way Red Squirrels recolonised the Scottish Highlands. There are now 2.5 million Grey Squirrels in the UK. Grey Squirrels carry squirrelpox which is seemingly always fatal to Red Squirrels.

The reasons there are so few Red Squirrels in the UK are that humans have burnt and cut and grazed their forests and that humans have introduced competitor species with an incurable disease. There are still many Red Squirrels across Europe.

They key question for me is:

“How many Grey Squirrels is it right to kill in order to save one Red Squirrel?”

It’s not just the killing of Grey Squirrels now, by trapping and then so-called ‘cranial dispatch’ or shooting, it’s having to carry on doing that forever to maintain isolated pockets of Grey Squirrel-free habitat.

Just imagine if all those centuries of effort and all the volunteers and current Lottery money had been put into spreading the forest again so that Squirrels could walk from shore to shore once more. Instead we’ve been stuck in a cycle of killing and reintroducing, killing and reintroducing rather than addressing the real problem: there’s hardly any forest left in which any kind of squirrel can live.

All nature needs is to have land and to be left alone.

Grey Squirrel - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Do you think we should be spending millions of pounds killing Grey Squirrels?

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