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Issue 40 - The red in peril

Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008


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The red in peril

Sally Toms considers the plight of the native red squirrel.

Where’s the year going? I can’t believe this is our October issue already. Thankfully the sun is still beating down here at Scotland Magazine HQ (albeit intermittently), but I do get quite excited about the approach of autumn.

Scotland looks her most spectacular in the fall, particularly Perthshire I think, when the trees turn every conceivable shade of red, yellow and green. It’s also one of the best times to spot our native red squirrel leaping about from tree to tree (or across the road in front of your car), as he goes about his preparations for winter.

Regular readers will know of my passion for wildlife, and as we Brits love to support the underdog, I am especially fond of the red squirrel.

Around 75 per cent of the United Kingdom’s entire red squirrel popluation is in Scotland (about 120,000) where it’s putting up a bit of a last stand against the invading grey.

The grey squirrel was introduced to the UK from America in the 19th century, it is bigger and tougher than the little red, competing for food and carrying a disease to which the red squirrel has no resistance.

It is thought that once grey squirrels arrive in an area populated by reds, the two species can co-exist for about 20 years before red squirrels disappear from the site.

Susan Morrison, Scottish comedian and radio presenter, described it the best. She likened grey squirrels to American GIs: bigger, tougher, over-sexed and over-here, pushing the poor red squirrel to the margins, like ginger boys at the disco.

Jokes aside, it would be unimaginably sad if the red squirrel were to disappear from Scotland’s ancient woodlands.

Around 1000 humane traps are being placed along the border with Cumbria in England in an effort to stop the northward spread of the grey, but when you consider there are some 200,000 grey squirrels in Scotland, already outnumbering the red – this does seem rather ineffective.

At least people are trying to make a difference. You may have noticed in the last issue a story about the Kingcausie Wildlife Overbridge, a 300 foot long bridge which, subject to a public inquiry this September, will span a section of the new Aberdeen bypass, purely to allow the red squirrel and ‘other wildlife’ to cross the road safely.

Quite what other wildlife would be comfortable trotting along above four lanes of speeding traffic, I’m not sure. I’m not even convinced that the squirrels would do it.

On the surface, it does seem like a bit of a folly, and the fact that it will cost £100,000 to build will have some people spluttering into their soup. But £100 grand is a drop in the ocean for a £390 million development.

And what price can you put on an endangered species?

It’s a shame the bridge won’t do more to protect the badgers, otters and other species in the area that will also be affected by the division of their territory. But it is heartwarming to know that people will go to such lengths to protect old Squirrel Nutkin, even if it is a folly.

With so much of the UK being overrun by the grey squirrel, chefs are even turning to this American invader as a new and succulent addition to the menu. Perhaps those humane traps in Cumbria won’t be Scotland’s last line of defence after all.

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