The UK’s squirrels have been immortalised in Beatrix Potter’s ‘Squirrel Nutkin’, as well as in numerous Christmas cards with the traditional snow-covered landscapes, as they nibble on their hidden cache of nuts. These are Britain’s native red squirrels though, a species that has disappeared from many regions across the country since the introduction of North America’s grey squirrel during the 1890s. Grey squirrels are just as cute of course, smaller in size but with the same distinctive bushy tail, but as well as being prolific breeders, they also brought the squirrel pox disease with them and it’s this that has contributed massively to the decline in red squirrel numbers.
Although carriers of the disease the greys rarely succumb to it. The reds though proved immediately and fatally susceptible, so along with being out-competed for food red squirrel populations have dwindled despite ongoing and determined conservation efforts to help save them.
I’ve certainly not spotted any red squirrels during my time in Yorkshire this year, but the greys abound. They are more commonly dubbed ‘tree-rats’ due to being so prolific and a pest, where I often walk my niece’s spaniel, Lexie, it’s a rare morning I don’t see one of them scampering along the ground or racing along the branch of a beech tree somewhere along the woodland track where we often walk.
The greys have their champions of course and it’s certainly far too late to even consider eradicating them now, but even so I suspect these invasive and destructive pests are quietly culled by farmers and landowners as the scientists and conservationists work on developing a vaccine and/or cure for the deadly squirrel pox, alongside working to protect those few red squirrel populations that continue to hang on in the more isolated northern areas of England and Scotland.