Squirrel Conservation FAQ

FAQ - Red squirrel conservation

Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Our work with squirrel conservation

The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside has been working for many years to help stop the extinction of red squirrels. Formby and the surrounding area is one of the few strongholds where red squirrels still exist in England.

Red squirrels are protected under UK legislation and are listed on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act. This protects red squirrels and their resting places.

A large body of scientific evidence shows that the spread of the grey squirrel has been (and remains) the principal cause of red squirrel decline in the UK as grey squirrels outcompete red squirrels for resources and also carry the squirrel pox virus. This is a disease to which grey squirrels are immune but it is fatal to red squirrels. Prior to this, habitat destruction and persecution had reduced red squirrel numbers, as they had for most wildlife, but at the time of the grey squirrel’s introduction, red squirrels still covered the British Isles from Cornwall to Scotland.

Grey squirrels were introduced from North America in 1876 and are considered to be an invasive non-native species.  They are listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.  Under Section 14 of the Act it is illegal to release a trapped grey squirrel or allow it to escape.

Red squirrels have now almost disappeared from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and are under serious pressure in Scotland.

Plight of red squirrels map

Why do we control grey squirrels?

Squirrel pox

Creating safe and healthy habitats for red squirrels, raising public awareness and scientific monitoring of red squirrel populations all play a part.  But the evidence is clear that some grey squirrel control is also required to protect red squirrels. Grey squirrel control is an essential part of red squirrel conservation. We should really be taking this opportunity to better understand the impact we as humans have on the natural world and learning from previous actions so as to ensure another introduction as devastating to a single species as the grey squirrel is on the red does not happen again.

red squirrel map cropped

How is the control carried out? 

Any control programmes are carefully targeted and focus on red squirrels areas. The main aim of this is to reduce the effects of competition from grey squirrels on red squirrels as well as minimise the risk of squirrel pox outbreaks. We mainly control grey squirrels by live-capture trapping and shooting, and this is carried out by trained individuals. Although our main method of control is by shooting, cranial dispatch is an approved method for the control of grey squirrels, which consists of one sharp blow to the back of the head resulting in instantaneous death. This document provided by DEFRA provides more information.

We do not use indiscriminate kill traps or poisons and we do not ask members of the public to kill grey squirrels themselves. Our protocols follow the strictest standards for humaneness, according to both British and European guidance. 

Our approach is based on scientific evidence and follows the government strategies, based on peer-reviewed science, for red squirrels in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

Where is this happening? 

Data gathered from extensive surveying is essential in informing where grey squirrel control is needed. We can then target control activity to best protect the current population as well as encouraging its expansion, creating a healthier and more robust red squirrel population. All of our work is focused in and around the current designated North Merseyside and West Lancashire stronghold. 

Are there any alternatives?

Raising public awareness, carrying out habitat works and surveying are all significant areas of our work in protecting the red squirrel. However, without our work in controlling grey squirrels, the scientific evidence shows that the red squirrel population simply wouldn't survive. It only takes one infected grey squirrel to infect an entire population of red squirrels. 

We are continuously looking into other approaches to red squirrel conservation and keep up to date on research into alternatives such as oral contraceptives for grey squirrels. However, currently these alternatives are still in development and a number of years away. 

The impact of squirrel pox

A red squirrel in Formby suffering from the effects of squirrel pox

It is important to realise that one of the main impacts grey squirrels have is to transmit the squirrel pox virus, which is normally lethal to red squirrels. Once infected, red squirrels suffer a slow and painful death as sores develop in and around their mouth and skin, ultimately leading to starvation or dehydration over a matter of one or two weeks.

 At this time there is no viable alternative to controlling grey squirrels in order to save the red squirrel from extinction across the UK mainland and save them from this slow and painful death.

The red squirrel population in Merseyside and Lancashire has been steadily increasing since the devastating impact of the squirrel pox virus outbreak in 2008, which saw 80 per cent of the population wiped out. Thanks to the perseverance and dedication of our volunteers and project officers, the population recovered quickly and has now increased to almost 90 per cent of the pre-pox numbers. This work includes a significant amount of monitoring and habitat works for red squirrels.

Scientific Research 

There is a wealth of scientific research, on which our policies and work is based. Some of which include:

Scientific evidence that grey squirrels transmit squirrel pox to reds

Breummer et al., (2010) Epidemiology of squirrelpox virus in grey squirrel in the UK. Epidemiology and Infection 138, p941-950.

Chantrey et al., (2014) European red squirrel population dynamics driven by squirrel pox at a gray squirrel invasion interface. Ecology and Evolution 4 (19) p3788-3799

Tompkins et al., (2003) Ecological replacement of native red squirrels by invasive greys driven by disease

Scientific evidence of effect of competition of greys on reds

Gurnell et al., (2004) Alien species and interspecific competition: effects of introduced eastern gray squirrels on red squirrel population dynamics. Animal Ecology 73 (1) p26-35

Common misconceptions about red squirrel conservation

Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Claim: Unlike red squirrels, who require a specific habitat of acres of pine forest to survive, grey squirrels can adapt to urban environments relatively easily.

Response: In the absence of grey squirrels, red squirrels would happily live in various habitats, including broadleaf woodland, parks and gardens. In fact, pine woodland is not their preferred habitat but this is the only habitat in which they are better able to compete with grey squirrels. Grey squirrels rely on higher calorie tree seeds such as beech and acorns, whereas red squirrels can survive on lower calorie seeds such as pine.

In Formby, Merseyside, there is an urban population of red squirrels that lives very successfully in the parks and gardens throughout the town. In fact, this population is currently the focus of a PhD research project at Nottingham Trent University looking at how important the urban environment can be as red squirrel habitat.

Claim: The most significant threat to red squirrel populations is not grey squirrels, but deforestation.

Response: Grey squirrels are known to be the biggest threat to red squirrel populations, through both competition and disease. This was accepted in the 1980s and there have been many further scientific publications confirming this since.

Providing more habitat without grey squirrel control will just increase the available habitat for grey squirrels, and reds will continue to be outcompeted.

Claim: Urban Squirrels advocates against culling grey squirrels on this basis, as such a cull is cruel, unnecessary and ineffective.

Response: Red squirrels are only still present in England and Wales due to the grey squirrel control undertaken by volunteers and professionals who are dedicated to protecting them and ensuring they are still present for future generations to see.

Claim: Grey squirrels have already developed immunity to the pox virus and red squirrels are now doing the same.

Response: There is no evidence of immunity to squirrel pox in the red squirrel population. One study undertaken in Formby and Ainsdale, Merseyside, showed that a proportion of a red squirrel population can survive a squirrel pox outbreak.  But as yet there is no evidence to suggest that these squirrels ever were, or now are immune to squirrel pox. These individuals may have contracted the disease, suffered the symptoms and then recovered from it. This may happen again during another outbreak.

Claim: Red squirrels were hunted to extinction in parts of the UK and many of those here now are descended from red squirrels introduced from Scandinavia, making them non-native.

Response Red squirrels never became entirely extinct within the UK.  There were re-introductions in places, but they were re-introductions of the same species – the Eurasion red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) - not new introductions of a different species. There are many examples of where humans have persecuted species to near or complete extinction in the UK but there have since been considerable conservation efforts to reintroduce them. Some examples include white-tailed sea eagles in Scotland and the beaver, which were both hunted to extinction and then reintroduced with individuals from other countries.

Claim: Grey squirrels are to be trapped, pushed into a sack and bludgeoned to death.

Response:  We adhere to the strictest animal welfare standards and grey squirrels are killed quickly and humanely. We do not use bludgeoning as a method.

Claim: Grey squirrels can just be released elsewhere

Response: Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 it is illegal to release a grey squirrel once trapped, or allow it to escape. Even if it was legal to release them, it would not be ethical to continue to release grey squirrels in areas that are already at carrying capacity and cannot support any more individuals. The squirrels would be put under extreme stress as they fight to gain, or maintain territories and get enough food.

Claim: Pine martens can do the job instead.

Response: There have been great successes in other parts of the UK where pine martens have returned and grey squirrel numbers declined resulting in an increase in red squirrels.

Additional research is required as the apparent effect of pine martens on grey squirrels is not fully understood and may not play out the same way under different conditions. Additionally, there are areas where red squirrels are present that cannot currently support a breeding population of pine martens and will therefore need continued grey squirrel control in the foreseeable future.

It is unfortunate that grey squirrel control is an essential part of red squirrel conservation.  We should really be taking this opportunity to better understand the impact we as humans have on the natural world and learning from previous actions, so as to ensure another introduction as devastating to a single species as the grey squirrel is on the red does not happen again.