Monday, 26 October 2015

Tom Langlands - Seeing Red

Ask anyone to conjure up an image of Scottish wildlife and the chances are that the first thing they will think of is that great monarch of the glens - the Red Deer. Undoubtedly the Red Deer has inspired poets and artists across the generations. Standing stately on heather clad hills with antlers probing through the all too familiar Scots mist it has become the embodiment of the spirit of a nation. In reality it is well established with a healthy population spread across the country. At the opposite end of the scale in terms of size is another of Scotland's great wildlife icons.  It also has the red 'Celtic' hair but its future is far less secure. I am talking of the Red Squirrel.

Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)

The Red Squirrel has been part of Scotland's natural landscape, and indeed the landscape of much of Europe and Asia for centuries. Hence it is more correctly known as the Eurasian Red Squirrel or, to give it its latin title, Sciurus vulgaris. Yet in Scotland the survival of the Red Squirrel is hanging precariously in the balance and it would take very little to push it into extinction. That is not an exaggeration. It is the harsh reality of where this beautiful little creature finds itself as a consequence of man's interference in the natural world.

Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)




The story goes back to the late nineteenth century when wealthy Victorian landowners could enjoy easy access to the far flung corners of the globe. It was a demonstration of wealth and status to be able to populate the gardens of large country mansions with what was perceived as exotic flora and fauna from distant lands. It is for this reason that Scotland is fighting today to control several invasive species that have adapted all too readily to their new home and have spread out of control. There are too many to name here but the list includes, Japanese Knotweed, Rhododendron and Himalayan Balsam. These species alone cost Scotland millions of pounds per annum to clean up and to deal with the environmental damage. The problem isn't restricted to plants but also encompasses a range of fish and animals that were prized for their novelty value. This included the north American Grey Squirrel. It was the importation of this little creature in the late 1800s that sadly now is ringing a very deafening death knell for its distant cousin, Scotland's native Red Squirrel.


Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)
Grey Squirrels were introduced in both England and Scotland but what wasn't known at the time was that those introduced in England carried a deadly disease whilst those imported to Scotland did not seem to. This may have hindered initial thinking into what was causing the decline of Red Squirrel numbers across England. What is known is that someone suddenly wakened up to the fact that large areas of England were devoid of the once commonplace Red Squirrel. As ecologists prepared maps of those areas of the UK where Red Squirrels could still be found and where Greys were largely in control it became evident that England's green and pleasant land was dominated by Greys and there was hardly a Red to be found. Today, the Red Squirrel is virtually extinct in England save for small numbers in isolated locations in the north of the country. As the Grey Squirrel march is a northwards one and the Reds are rapidly succumbing to the alien advance, Hadrian's Wall, the Roman legacy that marks the boundary between Scotland and England has once again become a very important battle line.


Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)
Squirrel pox is a particularly nasty virus that is carried by Grey Squirrels that have developed immunity to the disease and appear unaffected by it. Red Squirrels have no immunity and the effect is devastating. Once a Red Squirrel comes into contact with the virus it will develop weeping lesions and sores around the eyes, nose, mouth and genitalia. These will spread and the animal will have difficulty in seeing properly or feeding. Death is slow and painful and will take place about two weeks after initial infection. There is no cure and at present it is believed to carry a 100% death rate. Since 2005 there have been localised squirrel pox outbreaks with devastating results at several locations just inside the Scottish border. Rapid action halted these outbreaks but the fear is that other Greys may have slipped through the net. Southern Scotland is on high alert for any suspicious deaths of Red Squirrels. 


Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)
Squirrel pox is certainly the principle factor in the decline of Red Squirrels but it is not the only one. Grey Squirrels are larger, live longer, eat more and are able to travel across open land more easily than Reds which generally need areas of linked woodlands in order to spread. They out-compete Reds in almost every way. Wherever Grey Squirrels appear Red Squirrels seem to disappear irrespective of disease. Squirrel pox just makes the process more unpleasant and much faster.


Scotland does have the advantage of seeing the danger looming rather than reacting once the damage has been done but it needs resources and commitment to halt the problem. Ecologists and vets are working hard to find solutions. It is by no means an easy task. At present things may be under control but it won't take much for that situation to change. It is not scare mongering to say that this icon of Scottish wildlife could disappear from the country in the course of the next couple of decades. 


Let's hope that we all keep seeing Red for a very long time!


Red Squirrel (Scirius vulgaris)


Tom Langlands

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