Red squirrels are fighting back against their grey rivals, wildlife experts have revealed, less than six months after the government scrapped laws aimed at protecting the smaller native creatures.
The red squirrel is the UK’s only native squirrel but its numbers have been in decline ever since its larger grey cousins were imported from North America in the 19th century.
In March the government finally conceded defeat in their battle against the grey squirrel and threw out a 140-year law requiring people to report sightings of the invading species so they could be destroyed.
But the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) project claims smaller reds have reappeared in areas of Aberdeen and Tayside where they had been absent for years.
The SSRS team believe the resurgence is thanks to private efforts to control grey squirrel numbers across the country, which has meant their population has decreased.
Steve Willis, northeast project officer, said: “Since early June, the project has received reports of red squirrels in the middle of Bridge of Don, at Kincorth Hill, Craigiebuckler, and even dashing across North Anderson Drive in the morning rush hour.”
Three-quarters of the UK’s remaining population of red squirrels is in Scotland and an intensive trapping programme there has seen grey squirrels turfed out of parks and gardens.
This has led to more sightings of red squirrels in areas where they have never been reported before, with project officers confident they are winning the battle over the greys.
Ken Neill, project officer in Tayside, added: “One of the key things we notice is that areas that historically had a lot of grey squirrels where land owners have been carrying out more grey control has seen grey numbers diminish.
“In Aberdeen they certainly feel in time they might be able to almost, if not entirely, eradicate grey squirrels north of the Aberdeen – Angus border if the right amount of effort is kept up.
“The aim here in Tayside is more to control the grey squirrel population.”
Red squirrel populations are also thought to be flourishing in north east England due to greater efforts by the public to control grey numbers.
Speaking after the change in the law, Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle Central, “I was shocked and suprised by the minister’s sense of defeat when it came to halting the onslaught of the grey squirrel and protecting and promoting the red squirrel.
“We have no objection to repealing that particular clause, but would have expected to see greater energy in the protection of red squirrels.
“Red squirrels are flourishing in the North East, and there is an active interest here helping them – we have butchers who trap and sell grey squirrels.”
Grey squirrels were imported from America to the UK in the 19th century, when they were seen as a fashionable addition to estates. However, they carried the squirrel pox, which native reds had no immunity to and are able to eat and digest acorns, which red cannot.
Loss of woodland habitats has also contributed to the dwindling red squirrel numbers.
The UK’s red squirrel population is now estimated at about 140,000.
A recent study revealed predatory pine martens could also help save red squirrels because they prefer to eat the “slower and fatter” grey squirrels.
Irish researchers found the spread of pine martens may be a “critical factor” in the remergence of red squirrels.
Non-native greys are more attractive to the night–time predators because they are easier to catch.
The survey in central Ireland found grey squirrels suffered a “population crash” in areas where pine martens were active.
The authors, Emma Sheehy and Colin Lawton of the National University of Ireland, said their findings could apply to Scotland and “could prove highly significant in terms of red squirrel conservation”.
Scotland’s pine martins were nearly driven to extinction before being protected by law in 1988. They are now established in around 3,000 areas north of the central belt.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust said the pine marten’s comeback was good news for red squirrels.
Jonny Hughes, the trust’s conservation director, added: “Evidence from Ireland that pine marten predation on grey squirrels can significantly reduce their numbers and thereby help the expansion of red squirrels is increasingly compelling.”
Sightings of red and grey squirrels can be made by visiting the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels websiteand clicking on “Report a Sighting”.
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