How we’re protecting red squirrels

Red Squirrel (c) Margaret HollandRed Squirrel (c) Margaret Holland

Our much-loved, endangered red squirrel and its habitat will be protected for future generations through Red Squirrels United - a unique four-year project bringing together eight partners from across the UK.

What is Red Squirrels United?

Red Squirrels United is the biggest ever partnership of academics, practitioners and volunteers working together on a scientifically robust programme of red squirrel conservation across the UK.

Led by The Wildlife Trusts in partnership with eight partners - including Newcastle University, Forest Research, Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Red Squirrels Trust Wales, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Ulster Wildlife and the Wildlife Trusts of South and West Wales - work focuses on nine main stronghold areas of red squirrel populations across Northern Ireland, England and Wales.

Red Squirrels United is the largest invasive species management programme in Europe and is supported by the EU LIFE14 programme and the Heritage Lottery Fund of around £3 million. In Northern Ireland, the project is also supported by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

What will Ulster Wildlife be doing in Northern Ireland? 

In Northern Ireland, Ulster Wildlife will work with landowners, local communities and local red squirrel Groups in four remaining stronghold areas for reds including the Mournes, Broughshane and Ballygally, Fermanagh and the North West to help prevent further spread of invasive grey squirrels through conservation and community engagement activities.

We will also be encouraging a new network of volunteers to establish red squirrel groups to provide early warning and surveillance for grey squirrel encroachment into key areas and provide education and awareness of our iconic red squirrels.

Although there is no quick fix to the decline of our red squirrels, by working together we can secure their future.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Why do grey squirrel numbers need managed at all?
See our page Why reds need helpIt is widely established that the introduction of the invasive non-native grey squirrel from North America to Ireland in 1911 has led to the drastic decline in red squirrels - see map below. One of the main impacts grey squirrels have is to transmit the squirrelpox virus, which is lethal to reds. As a result, grey squirrels are regarded as 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is squirrelpox and what can be done about it?
This virus, carried by grey squirrels without causing them harm, is fatal to red squirrels and once infected red squirrels often suffer a slow and painful death. The virus produces scabs and sores in and around the eyes, nose, mouth, feet, ears and genitalia. The infected squirrel is very quickly unable to see or to feed properly and rapidly becomes dehydrated and malnourished. The disease is highly virulent in red squirrels and kills within 15 days of infection.

A vaccine against squirrelpox is in development but it could be many years before this is available in the affordable and easily dispensable form necessary to assist red squirrel conservation.

Is this project part of a plan to eradicate grey squirrels from the entire UK? 
No – this project focuses on protecting remaining red squirrel strongholds and expanding these outwards by managing grey squirrels in nine areas in Northern Ireland, Northern England and Wales. A number of organisations are involved including Wildlife Trusts in Wales, the north of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The below map shows the project areas where Red Squirrels United is working. The vast majority of the UK remains unaffected.

Creating safe and healthy habitat for red squirrels, raising public awareness and scientific monitoring of red squirrel populations all play an important part too. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will grey squirrel numbers be controlled humanely?
The killing of any wild animal is always a last resort measure to deal with serious conservation management problems and is only considered where there is strong evidence that this will be effective in achieving conservation objectives. 

The methods we have adopted follow the strictest standards for humaneness, according to British and European Guidelines and any control programmes are carefully targeted and scientifically monitored. Our methods are also supported by the European Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare.

Are there any alternatives to controlling grey squirrels?
No. At this time halting further spread of grey squirrels at strategically targeted points is the only viable option to protect remaining strongholds for red squirrels. Habitat improvements can assist red squirrels to do better than grey squirrels in carefully chosen areas. 

Grey squirrel contraception is the subject of research, as is the development of a squirrelpox vaccine but these are a long way from being ready for use and may be insufficient on their own. Additionally, the current form of contraceptive could not be used in areas where we have red squirrels, badgers or pine martens as it is not specific to grey squirrels, but would also affect the fertility of other priority and protected species.

What happens if grey squirrels are not managed?
As the historic loss of red squirrels from much of Ireland, England, and Wales shows, non-intervention would lead to further loss of red squirrels and extinction of red squirrels on the mainland within 35 years - and extinct in England around 10 years. 

Are grey squirrels already managed and are numbers controlled?
Red Squirrels United partners are already involved in regulated and monitored programmes of grey squirrel management in parts of northern England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, greys are currently controlled by local red squirrel groups in targeted red squirrel strongholds.

Though the task is arduous, targeted and co-ordinated grey squirrel control can work in carefully chosen areas. By keeping greys at low levels, red squirrels can not only survive but thrive, even returning to some areas from which they had been absent for many years. 

For example on the island of Anglesey, off the North West coast of Wales, grey squirrel management took the red squirrel population from just a few remaining pairs in 1997 to a population of 700 in 2015. Red squirrels have spread once more across the entire island and are currently recolonising parts of mainland Wales. If left alone, the reds would have become extinct on the island.

Do pine martens help control grey squirrels?
Research by NUI Galway has shown that a high-density of Irish pine marten populations is causing corresponding populations of grey squirrels to collapse, with a complete recovery of red squirrels following rapidly. However, we cannot allow the fledgling recovery of the pine marten be the sole prospect for survival of our red squirrel because currently the phenomenon only seems to occur where there are very high densities of pine marten.

For further information about our Red Squirrels United Project, please contact:
Conor McKinney, Living Landscapes Manager, Ulster Wildlife
Tel: 028 9046 3111 Email: conor.mckinney@ulsterwildlife.org