Blue-blooded squirrels in Cornwall?

By Ray eye (Photograph by Ray eye) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone likes red squirrels – I know I do.  And everyone would like to see red squirrels return to their widespread former distribution, even if that meant seeing the back of the non-native grey squirrel – I know I would.

I’ve said this before, and it momentarily caused a stir, ‘If I could click my fingers and all the grey squirrels in the country would disappear then I would ‘click!’ right now’.   But it is a little more complicated and difficult than that, isn’t it?

One of the apparently most promising red squirrel recovery projects has been on Anglesey where you would have thought that its island nature would provide an effective barrier to grey squirrel ingress -but this year I notice that 10 grey squirrels had been killed in the Menai Bridge/Beaumaris area – and others will have evaded capture.  And then in August this year there were reports of a virus killing red squirrels on Anglesey, where numbers had built up from around 40 in the late 1990s to over 500 this year.

It’s good news that some red squirrels have nipped over the Menai Straight from Anglesey to Gwynnedd but this also presumably means that infected red squirrels might make the journey in the other direction as might, and do, greys too.  Anglesey looked a very good bet for a project like this – and there has been success so far – but eventual success seems far from certain.  But, Good luck to them! is what I say.

I’d be less keen to put my money into the plan to reintroduce red squirrels into Cornwall, I think.  I happened to be down in Cornwall a few weeks ago failing to see choughs on the Lizard.  Although I didn’t see choughs as I walked the coast path I was slightly surprised to see a lot of grey squirrels.  I noticed them at the time in the woodlands and gardens but also saw several happily taking a stroll through the pastures too.  I rather got the impression that there were a lot of them about.

And yet the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project is hoping to establish a cordon sanitaire on the Lizard and another across the Land’s End peninsula.  This project has been advised, I see, by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and is supported by a wide variety of people including Prince Charles (Duke of Cornwall of course) and noted environmentalist Sir Jonathan Porrit (I think that might be Porritt), B (might that be Ben?) Goldsmith, R (might that be Robin?) Hanbury-Tenison and R (might that be another Robin?) Knox Johnston.  Another founder sponsor of the project is R (might that be Richard?) Benyon who is also a Defra minister.

A senior conservationist, who did not want to be named, described the project as ‘barking mad’ and ‘doomed to failure’.  No knighthood for him (for it was a he) if his identity leaks out – it won’t from me, though.

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32 Comments

  1. I'm a West Cornwall resident who loves The Lizard and red squirrels, but I completely agree with you. It would logistically be too difficult to create and maintain a buffer zone against greys and I'm not even sure there's enough suitable habitat there for the more specialised red. There is in my view far too much doubt of success to make it an ethical project. I hope the high profile support doesn't mean it ever goes ahead. PS. sorry you didn't see choughs - they are alive and kicking. I saw a pair feeding in a field near Lizard Point last week - sorry!!

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    • Mark

      Amanda - thank you very much. Don't apologise for seeing the choughs, I'm very glad you do, but I am a little jealous...

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  2. Be far better bet to re-introduce sea-eagles to the Cornish coast. I can't see the point of re-introducing red squirrels as there are still (fairly) secure populations in England...no doubt it would be a 'good thing' to do but the odds would seem to be heavily stacked against success and if there is a pot of re-introduction money available there are far more worthy candidates for a slice of the cash...not least some more Large Blue butterfly colonires

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    • Mark

      David - I'd agree. Although maybe HRH, the Devon Association of Sports Shoots and others wouldn't be so keen on the sea eagle - who knows?

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  3. John Miles

    With Goshawk the main predator of Grey Squirrels in England with 68% food brought to a nest in Devon of Grey squirrels it seems sad that these shooting folk think that by killing this bird and grey squirrels they might save other species. There is a good bit in the new Dick Potts book 'Partridges' about predator -prey relationships. With pox a big killer of the reds, predators should be encourage to reduce even red squirrels especially as it would prevent the spread of the disease to other red squirrels. If they want to reintroduce anything in Cornwall let be the Pine Marten!

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    • Mark

      John - very good points. Goshawks and pine martens - the healthy red squirrel's friends.

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  4. Candy Atherton

    I live near Falmouth and we are overrun with greys. It drives our dog mad - we see grey squirrels daily and everywhere you go in Cornwall you see them so I am with you. Totally agree about sea-eagles - that would be fantastic.

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    • Mark

      Candy - hi! welcome! and thanks for your Cornish comment.

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  5. Bimbling

    Cornwall is a very long way from where I am, and I've not visited the county so I don't know what the habitat mix is like (but that's not going to stop me commenting of course!) and how much conifer there is compared to large seeded broadleaves. But I have a question. If this is a re-introduction, do the IUCN guidelines apply or is this just a landowner scheme to 'jolly-well-fix-those-foreign-blighters'?

    Seems to me that the likelihood of success depends on the resources applied. Public spend has to be weighed up against other competing priorities, and with a project such as this, at least some (many) will have a better (much) chance of success and would always attract the scarce funding. The landowners and their staff probably do have the wherewithal to get pretty close to eradicating greys, (they've managed with hen harriers over large parts of its UK range - haven't they?) and then they can trumpet how they and not the bunny hugging greens have saved Cornwall's reds.

    Is it sustainable? Absolutely not. The moment they stop maintaining the exclusion area for greys, they'll be straight in. Landowners have of course spent decades paying for a sustainable harvest of foxes across large areas of the uplands to improve the success of grouse - so it is possible. If you are prepared to keep applying the resources. In this case especially if you are determined (should that be bloody-minded) enough.

    Wouldn't it be great to be able to harness all that energy and point it at something we can all applaud. The trouble is, there's an almost visceral rejection from 'the toffs' of 'our' projects and priorities and then they are hurt when we tell them their ideas are pants!

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  6. Heather Bothwell

    Here in West Cavan and Leitrim, Ireland , improvement in red squirrel numbers and pine martins , (waiting for goshawks, ) drop in grey squirrel numbers .Reason I believe is large areas of woodland mostly Sitka planted last 30 years. Habitat , habitat , the same story, curlew habitat gone under trees.

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    • Mark

      Heather - welcome and thank you for your comment.

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  7. MK

    Lovely romantic idea but daft in practice. It's a shame the map on the website doesn't pan out so you can appreciate what a tiny part Cornwall, let alone the British Isles, would be affected.

    What do red squirrels, elms and (soon) ash have in common? Range much reduced (or soon to be) by unwelcome alien invader. Spend the money on better measures to keep out more invasives instead, simples!

    Or how about some red kites in Cornwall?

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  8. Emma Salt

    How does Cornwall have 'relative isolation from the mainland'? As a regular visitor to the county, I never noticed I was going onto an island...thought it was part of the mainland...?

    Lovely idea, but think there are better things the money could be spent on.

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  9. Here on the Isle of Wight we have a healthy population of native red squirrels. Luckily for us they seem to do fairly well most of the time with little intervention from us. On the rare occasions when a grey squirrel has been seen or suspected we go looking for it, and so far no breeding grey has been confirmed on the Island, ever.

    Arguably the Isle of Wight population is the only English - or even the only UK - population which is not actually under threat. But I'm not optimistic enough to claim that is a result of our good stewardship - far from it. Good luck and convenient geography have made our island a fastness for red squirrels (and other mammals such as water vole, bats and dormice) which on the mainland just a short way away have long gone. The main reason for this is the lack of other competing or invasive species, such as mink, deer, and grey squirrels.

    It always amazes me how much money and effort people are willing to put into the preservation of tiny, introduced or non-viable populations of red squirrel elsewhere in the country. I don't resent it, really, even if we do manage on a shoestring down here. Some squirrel conservation projects are pretty good. But others are essentially futile when considered as a reintroduction or conservation effort. That doesn't mean the project is worthless though, as there are many other reasons to 'farm' red squirrels. We just need to be realistic about this. When a project is for vanity, tourist attraction, public education or just sentiment, there's no shame in saying so honestly rather than dressing it up as some kind of science or actual conservation.

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    • Mark

      Matthew - thank you very much for that comment

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    • Filbert Cobb

      Matthew - your last sentence should be a standing instruction in every conservation charity's rulebook.

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    • Does the Channel Islands count, seen a few good numbers on Jersey?

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  10. Dennis Ames

    Bet if a bounty was put on Grey Squirrels tails they would soon disappear and country could enjoy the Reds.

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    • Filbert Cobb

      I'm sure we used to have a bounty, back before I wore long trousers. I think the tail had to be produced as evidence to collect two bob. Lots of squirrels were killed but I don't think it made any difference. I could be wrong but I don't think any eradication scheme has ever worked except for coypu. Mink?

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      • Mark

        Filbert - can't resist saying that gaemekeepers, egg collectors, trophy hunters etc have managed to get rid of sea eagles and ospreys in the past and almost succeeded with hen harriers and red kites in the past too.

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        • Filbert Cobb

          Then motivation must be the key.

          There is a currently a method for apprehending criminals which is gathering support. A bounty is offered for the mobile phone, bicycle, iPadPod, bird of prey, egg, whatever, that has been criminally acquired. The bounties are paid out on presentation of the aforesaid items in person from the local Bounty Administration Office, which is easily identified by the blue lantern over the door. This works, apparently, and is almost true.

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    • Mark

      Dennis - I think there are about 3 million grey squirrels in the UK.

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    • Bimbling

      Tried before - 1950's and 60's I think. Good trade in tails developed tho'.

      Clearly failed.

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  11. Dennis Ames

    Cannot help but think that if a relatively few people can get rid of all the Hen Harriers it should in theory if the resolve is there for a lot of people to leave our country clear of this diseased invader.Think what we need is £1 a head bounty and people keen to be good conservationists plus some recipes from H F W.

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    • Mark

      Dennis - there should be 300 pairs of hen harrier in England but there haven't been for ages. There are 3,000,000 grey squirrels. So there are 5000 times as many - and they produce lots of babies too. There were about 200,000 coypu, all in East Anglia, and all in a relatively small area of East Anglia and that took some sorting out over a 30 year period. It would be quite an undertaking! However, as an incentivised job creation scheme maybe it could work...

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      • Jonathan Wallace

        Leaving aside the practicalities, I imagine there would also be an enormous outcry if anyone attempted to wipe out the grey squirrel in spite of the case for doing so. Look at the reaction to attempts to eliminate Ruddy Ducks or to get rid of Hedgehogs from the Outer Hebs. For many people the sound conservation reasons for those culls were irrelevant.

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  12. Adam M

    Provided they are planning to fund this from donations that wouldn't have otherwise have found their way into 'conservation' activities does it really matter, other than the fact that it might be a waste of money? If it is to be funded from pots that could have been used to fund projects that would deliver better value for money then I can see why folk might object. Interesting to know where they are going to secure funding from between now and the next glacial though.

    Mind you it does grate a bit when I need just a little bit of funding for a few hand tools for volunteers to clear scrub with!

    Only partially joking here - should be marketing squirrels as a new health food - free-range, organic, low fat and very tasty!

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    • Mark

      Adam - a health food if shot with non-toxic shot perhaps.

      Does it really matter if the money wouldn't have come into mature conservation? That depends on what moral stance you take on killing things, I guess. If you see killing other mammals as something only to be done when 'justified' (each person may have their own views on what that word means) then killing lots of squirrels when it won't help red squirrels would be a dodgy undertaking. See Chapter 5 in Fighting for Birds - 25 years in nature conservation.

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      • Adam M

        You could, I am sure, run a very successful second blog on meat vs vegetarianism Mark.

        Might it be right to put them to use if they are to be killed anyway in Cornwall, which is more what I was hinting at? They are too cute 'n cuddly and look too much like animals for most people to eat in our shrink-wrapped supermarket society though!

        And yes, it would need to be non-toxic shot or trapping!

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  13. Julian

    Really you lot I can't believe your discussing a squirrel cull ! If Brian May finds out you will all be in loads of trouble !

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  14. Roderick Leslie

    The bounties were tried and failed - the difference between Greys and HH is their place in the food chain - Greys very fast reproducing, live in woodland making concealment easy, omnivores - HH top, slow breeding, living where you can see for miles.

    On Cornwall, a mainland trial has been tried before but you never heard about it because it failed so quickly & totally.

    Interesting about the Irish - having developed plans to diversify FC's Northumberland forests, when the seriousness of the red crisis became clear we went back to remove the large seeded broadleaves (eg Oak) that give Greys the edge. I don't think the Irish are into diverse forests yet so ironically their solid Sitka is just the ticket for this particular species.

    Good to hear about the much underappreciated IOW population - most people believe Red's 'prefer' conifers - but on the IOW you can see them living happily in ancient coppice woodland which, incidentally, is very different from across the Solent because of another absentee - deer. They've ended up in conifers on the mainland because Greys struggle in pure conifer. Red Squirrel as well as being one of our most iconic species is also, as far as England is concerned, one of our most threatened - a real prospect of extinction.

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  15. Pete Mantle

    Why not eat them? Seriously, I have. If you can eat Pheasant, Pigeon and deer? Why not? Makes perfect sense to me...

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