The red squirrel is in a battle for survival within the United Kingdom. At one time, as many as 3.5 million red squirrels roamed through their native areas of the UK. Now, the number of red squirrels in the United Kingdom has fallen to no more than 250,000, and their numbers continue to decline.
The grey squirrel is the reason for the decline of the red squirrel in the UK. In the 1870s, grey squirrels were introduced into the UK. Their numbers expanded rapidly at the expense of the red squirrel. The grey squirrel is a carrier of a pox disease. This disease does not affect the grey squirrels, but it does affect the red squirrels. The grey squirrel also takes many resources away from the reds. They limit the red squirrels’ food supplies.
There are efforts underway to combat the expansion of the grey squirrel population and help restore red squirrel numbers. Conservationists are attempting to bait the greys with contraceptives to control their breeding.
Grey squirrel control has found an unexpected ally. Pine martens have proven to be a serious predator of grey squirrels while not preying on red squirrels in high numbers. Researchers in both Ireland and Scotland found that in places where pine martens exist in healthy numbers, red squirrels flourish and grey squirrels do not.
Here is the problem. Pine Martens have been hunted to extinction in England, and there are reduced numbers in Scotland. Protections are now in place for the pine marten across the UK, and the hope is that their numbers will rise.
The pine marten is being reintroduced into both England and Wales. The hope is that as the number of pine martens increases, they will be able to effectively control the number of grey squirrels. This will then allow the native red squirrel populations to rebound to something approaching their previous levels.
Wildlife experts do hold out a caution. It will take several years for the pine martens to establish large populations outside of Scotland. In the meantime, an action plan will have to be developed to keep the red squirrel from facing extinction.