Two big hopes for the Red Squirrel

Friends of the Red Squirrel join forces across the UK - by Tom Heap, with additional words by Agnes Davis.

Closeup of red squirrel posing at the park

The much-loved red squirrel is receiving vital support in its battle for survival, including from one very unlikely source. Red Squirrels Unite, a new four-year programme bringing together eight partners from across the UK, has found support not only from a £1.2million Heritage Lottery Fund donation but from the secretive pine marten, which is known to eat squirrels.

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Red Squirrels Unite is the first truly cross-border conservation initiative of its kind. Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “This investment will allow us to unite hundreds of people championing this charismatic creature into one UK force for good. It will build on decades of hard work and passionate commitment.” Government nature conservation agencies, 32 UK squirrel organisations and 1,250 purpose-trained volunteers will increase communication, education and conservation activities. There will also be workshops for the community, including mass participation squirrel monitoring.

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A SECRETIVE HELPER

The combined efforts of the red squirrel’s human allies will be supported by a resurgence in the numbers of a most unlikely ally: the pine marten – an animal possessed of a “bloody-thirsty disposition”, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1929, when pine martens were virtually extinct in Britain. Colonising these islands after the Ice Age, they were first hunted for their fur and then exterminated to protect game birds and chickens. But in 1981 the Wildlife and Countryside Act made it illegal to hunt them and as forestry spread in our uplands they have spread too.

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They are now thought to number 3-4,000. And there is evidence their prosperity benefits the red squirrel. For the elusive pine marten is a magnificent hunter of the red’s arch nemesis – the grey squirrel. The pine marten is an animal of uncommon agility, stealth and occasional ferocity, and it has grey squirrels for lunch (or at least dinner, as they tend to like the dusk).

In Ireland, 12 grey squirrels arrived as a wedding gift in 1911 before escaping, multiplying and spreading. They are an invasive species that damage trees and have eliminated our native red squirrel from most of the country. Even lethal human intervention is often useless: a woodland culled of greys can be repopulated from surrounding country in 10 weeks. 

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PROTECTION BY THE PINE MARTEN

Then in the Irish Midlands, ecologists noticed that numbers were dwindling, occasionally to nothing. An advancing front of pine martens seemed to be forcing their retreat. Large swathes of central Ireland are now grey-squirrel free. Now, this same trend is appearing in Scotland.

Nobody is exactly sure how pine martens disperse the greys. Emma Sheehy from Aberdeen University says that in the US, where greys come from, they don’t coexist with pine martens so they haven’t evolved to cope with the threat, whereas reds have learnt how to avoid being caught.

So will the pine marten become as cherished as its nutkin neighbour? Pine martens can live alongside humans quite well. Roof spaces make ideal den sites and in parts of Scotland, B&Bs are offering nightly viewings to guests as pine martens visit the garden to dine on “toast and jam”.

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CONFLICT WITH GAME SHOOTING

But their success and popularity is ruffling some feathers. Pheasant, grouse and the rare capercaillie are definitely on the martens’ menu, and a hen-house massacre is well within their range. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation feels “it is important that there is management flexibility to deal with any potential conflict situations”.

But concern isn’t limited to those used to holding a gun. A recent report for Scottish Natural Heritage raises concerns for birds on the Isle of Mull, such as the wood warbler, yellowhammer and tree pipit. A nest high in a tree offers little protection for eggs and hatchlings from such adept climbers. Snakes and lizards could also be at risk: the martens’ arrival in the Mediterranean Balearic Islands resulted in native reptile extinction.

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squirrel in the air

VARIETY OF LIFE

The pine marten’s recovery is a pleasure for anyone who feels our countryside is enhanced by increasing the variety of thriving indigenous species. The fact that they might help us protect the treasured red squirrel is a major bonus. But very little of our land is truly wild and devoid of commercial or conservation interests. We cannot control the appetite of such a competent killer and sometimes they will eat the ‘wrong’ thing.