Why do red squirrels need protecting?
The red squirrel is one of our most iconic, much-loved mammals immortalised as 'squirrel nutkin' by Beatrix Potter. Seeing a flash of red for the first time is a very special moment and something that everybody should experience.
Red squirrels also play a vital role in regenerating our woodlands, burying nuts and seeds which grow into future trees that sustain a host of native woodland dwellers, such as pine martens and jays.
Sadly, these charismatic creatures are under threat from the invasive non-native grey squirrel which was introduced from North America by the Victorians. Competition from the more robust grey squirrel for food and shelter, and infection by the deadly squirrel pox virus – which greys transmit to reds - has been the main factor in the red squirrel’s decline.
In the last 50 years, the red squirrel has nearly completely disappeared from most of the UK, declining from around 3.5 million to just 140,000, with less than 40,000 estimated to be left in Ireland. Unfortunately, without conservation management, red squirrels could become extinct within a generation. Time is really running out to save our red squirrels.
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How is Ulster Wildlife helping?
Ulster Wildlife is part of Red Squirrels United, a partnership of academics, practitioners and volunteers, working together on a programme of red squirrel conservation. It launched in 2015 and is focused on conserving red squirrel populations in nine specific areas in Northern Ireland, Northern England and Wales over the next four years.
Here in Northern Ireland, we are working with landowners, local communities and local red squirrel groups in four remaining red squirrel strongholds, including the Mournes, Broughshane and Ballygally, Fermanagh and the North West; undertaking habitat management to help red squirrels, education and awareness activities, monitoring squirrel populations and targeted control of grey squirrels in areas where red squirrels are at risk of extinction.
Although there is no quick fix to the decline of our red squirrels, by working together we can help secure their future.
Red Squirrels United is funded by EU LIFE14 (LIFE14 NAT/UK/000467) and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. In Northern Ireland, the initiative is also supported by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why can't red and grey squirrels live together?
It 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. Grey squirrels compete more successfully than red squirrels for food and habitat. They are larger and more robust and can digest seeds with high tannin content, such as acorns, more efficiently. This forces red squirrels into other areas where they can find it more difficult to survive. And, over time, grey squirrels ultimately replace red squirrels. 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 lethal 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 is about protecting remaining red squirrel strongholds and expanding these expanding these outwards by managing grey squirrels in nine areas in Northern Ireland, Northern England and Wales.
The 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 in places where they interact with reds?
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 in England around 10 years.
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 fledgeling recovery of the pine marten to be the sole prospect for the survival of our red squirrel, because currently the phenomenon only seems to occur where there are very high pine marten densities.
Read our annual squirrel survey reports
Every spring, thanks to help from our dedicated volunteers, we monitor the impact of our conservation work by surveying both red and grey squirrels across Northern Ireland. This data, in combination with sightings received from members of the public, is used to track changes in the distribution of red and grey squirrel populations and to help target our conservation efforts.