By Charles Dutton MICFor
The red squirrel was once common in all wooded areas of Britain and Ireland. I can recall a time when seeing them scurrying among the trees on my farm in Co Meath was an almost everyday occurrence. It is now however fifteen years since I last sighted one.
In an astonishingly short space of time the red has become an endangered species while the North American import, the bigger and stronger grey, has taken over more and more of the red’s natural habitat.
When the grey first became a common sight, people were fascinated by its boldness, agility and adaptability and whole TV wildlife programmes were devoted to admiring the ability of this pest to raid bird feeders and avail of unusual feeding opportunities.
Sadly, the public were, and to a large extent still are, unaware of the steady disappearance of our native red squirrel as the grey pushes it further and further towards extinction. The European Squirrel Initiative or ESI have already produced two excellent publications highlighting the dramatic spread of the alien grey throughout Britain and Ireland and the threat this pest poses to our woodland resource.
With this new publication "The Red Squirrel, Redressing The Wrong", they demonstrate effectively just how serious the situation is and what must be done to protect our remaining pockets of woodland where the red still survives.
Research has shown that if the current situation continues the red squirrel will be extinct in Britain and Ireland within 20 years. This is a major conservation issue and Charles Dutton has done an excellent job in presenting the facts clearly and comprehensively with attractive pictures, illustrations and charts allowing for easy assimilation of the information.
In the introduction the reader is asked the question "What do you feel when you see a red squirrel running about in the tree canopy? Perhaps a sense that one’s daily life has been enriched and that the forest is in balance and in good heart."
Keeping our forests in balance and rich in bio-diversity is perhaps what concerns us most and this book illustrates, in well researched detail, the rather stark choices facing us. If we do not act quickly, then our native red squirrel will soon be a memory relived only through the pages of Beatrix Potter’s "Tales of Squirrel Nutkin".
The book begins with details of the red squirrel’s distribution throughout Europe. Maps illustrating the distribution of the red in both 1940 and 2002 show an alarming loss of territory with the 2002 map demonstrating how the grey squirrel has overrun most of England and Wales in the intervening period.
The advance of the grey has not just affected red squirrel populations; since Cecil Rhodes introduced the grey to South Africa, it has been responsible for environmental disruption and the University of Natal has recorded songbird losses of up to 40%.
Current conservation projects throughout Britain are detailed including data from the Isle of Wight, which is the only large area in England totally protected from natural invasion by grey squirrels. Clocaenog forest is a large Sitka spruce forest and probably contains the largest remaining population of red squirrels in Wales, however these are now stated to be at risk as greys have entered the forest. Road edges had been planted with beech for landscape and amenity purposes but were then removed as they were providing access corridors for the greys. Based on this kind of experience, recommendations are made for woodland management and planting to further assist the survival of our remaining reds.
The final chapters then deal with means of assisting re-colonisation and the creation of red squirrel reserves. These also contain essential information on means of reintroducing the red and its further management and aftercare.
Once the red has been driven out of an area of woodland, the costs of reintroduction are high and it is suggested that great savings could be made if local conservation groups could be used to help or even run sites.
"The Red Squirrel, Redressing The Wrong" is essential reading for anyone who cares about the future of this attractive and endearing native mammal. We need to create far greater public awareness if we are to seriously address the problem and this can only be achieved by first bringing the plight of the red to the public’s attention.
This book does just that. Hopefully our decision makers in government throughout Europe will take note and act before it is too late.
Published by the European Squirrel Initiative. ISBN No. 0-9547576-0-3.
Joe Barry farms in Co Meath, Ireland
He also writes for a number of publications on forestry and environmental issues.