Why red squirrels need help

Red Squirrel (c) Harry HoggRed Squirrel (c) Harry Hogg

Once common across the country, red squirrels have declined drastically in the UK from around 3.5 million in the 1950’s, to perhaps less than 120,000 today. This is reflected across Ireland where the current population is estimated to be less than 40,000.

The continued decline of red squirrels is almost entirely caused by their interaction with the invasive, non-native grey squirrel. Grey squirrels compete more successfully than reds for food and habitat, and also carry squirrelpox – a virus lethal to reds, but to which greys are immune. This has led to the replacement of reds by greys in many parts of Northern Ireland. In a handful of refuges such as Glens of Antrim, west Fermanagh, south Armagh and Ards Peninsula reds still cling on, but grey squirrels are rapidly moving in.

Reds are an integral part of our natural heritage and play a valuable role in our woodland ecosystems that grey squirrels simply don’t replicate or, in fact, may even undermine. Red squirrels have a terrible memory and it benefits our woodlands wonderfully. They are known as scatter hoarders and spend a significant amount of time burying food during the autumn that will sustain them during the cold and hard winter months. Fortunately, for our woodland habitats, they often forget where they bury their nuts and seeds, and so they effectively plant the seeds of trees that will sustain our woodland ecosystems into the future.

Grey squirrels however undermine this act in two ways: firstly, they will pilfer from a red squirrel cache which affects the survival rate of reds during the winter and reduces the ability of our woodlands to naturally regenerate; secondly, grey squirrels display damaging bark stripping behaviour which can kill young trees. Although reds strip bark too, their small numbers - up to six times lower than greys in places - means they have less impact.