The plight of red squirrels
Please note: We are currently experiencing an outbreak of Squirrel Pox in Formby.
The Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) unbeknownst to the rest of its home range countries, is actually classed as endangered in the UK. The red squirrel has nearly completely disappeared from most of the UK in just under 150 years, declining from around 3.5 million to just 140,000. They are now a protected species in the UK.
Why do we love this species so much?
For many of us, the red squirrel brings back childhood memories of Squirrel Nutkin, a character from the famous Beatrix Potter series. The red squirrel is one of our most iconic, native and much-loved small mammals, and seeing one for the first time is a special moment that everybody should experience.
In terms of ecological niche, the red squirrel is a key seed disperser for our native tree species such as Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris). They also spread mychorrizal fungi spores that are incredibly important for their symbiosis with trees. Red squirrels therefore play a vital role in the regeneration of coniferous woodlands which are also an important habitat for other species, such as the goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), pine marten (Martes martes) and wildcat (Felis silvestris).
What are the threats to red squirrels?
Sadly, the biggest threat to the species has been the introduction of the invasive grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), brought over from North America by the Victorians in the 1870s.
Not only do grey squirrels outcompete reds for food and resources, they also carry the squirrel pox virus. This virus is highly pathogenic to reds, yet carried by greys without any impact on their health. Currently 61% of greys have been exposed to and may carry the virus. Where the virus is present, greys replace red squirrels 20 times faster than through competition alone.
Red squirrels in Lancashire
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% 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% of the pre-pox numbers.
It is our aim that red squirrels will once again become a common sight throughout North Merseyside, West Lancashire and beyond. As a partner in the new Red Squirrels United project, funded by EU LIFE and National Lottery Heritage Fund, and with the help of our dedicated volunteers, this is now a real possibility.
Red Squirrels United
Red Squirrels United marks the biggest ever coalition of academics and delivery partners working together on a scientifically robust programme of conservation for our iconic red squirrels. The initiative unites eight partners in a four-year UK-wide programme.
Here in Merseyside and Lancashire, the funding has enabled us to employ a Red Squirrel Ranger and a Community Engagement Officer for three years until September 2019. This will allow us to carry out targeted grey squirrel control to prevent the incursion of grey squirrels into the red squirrel reserve areas of Formby and Ainsdale, as well as create suitable ‘grey squirrel-free’ habitat for red squirrels to re-colonise.
There are still small populations of red squirrels in the towns of Southport and Crosby, but reds could once again be widespread throughout the parks and gardens of these towns.
Search for red squirrel volunteering opportunities
Review our bi-annual monitoring reports
We monitor the impact of our work through a bi-annual monitoring programme, carried out every spring and autumn. This data, in combination with sightings received from members of the public, is used to track changes in the abundance and distribution of red and grey squirrel populations. The reports are available to view below.
A massive thank you to all our funders
We couldn't do what we do without our brilliant funders, so thank you!
Project number: LIFE14NAT|UK|00467
How you can help
Please report sightings of red and grey squirrels to us by calling 07590 745 862 or filling in the form below. This will help us to accurately map the distribution of both species throughout the project area.
You can also help the great red squirrel comeback by joining your local branch of Red Alert North West. The work varies from monitoring the squirrel populations to engaging with the community at local events, to helping with aspects of grey control. There are local group meetings every season so if you are interested in joining in and learning more, please contact us.
If you are lucky enough to have red squirrels visiting your garden, please clean any feeders and water bowls regularly. Sterilising feeders used by reds and greys will help to minimise the risk of squirrel pox and any other diseases spreading. Also make sure you provide a variety of foods such as monkey nuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, apple, carrot and fresh water.
Remember, feeding should only be supplementary. To ensure red squirrels still forage naturally, only provide food every few days.