Red squirrel conservation

Red squirrel on feeder by Gary Bruce Highland Photographer


Red squirrels are classed as near threatened in England, Northern Ireland and Wales due to their declines. They are still locally common in Scotland, which supports 75% of the UK population.


In 1994, the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) was published as the UK Government’s response to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, which has 168 country signatories. Red squirrels were classed as a BAP species and the UK Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation was published in 1996.


Since then, Scotland published the Scottish Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation in 2015. Wales published the Conservation Plan for Red Squirrels in Wales in 2009. The UK Squirrel Accord and Defra are currently working on a red squirrel action plan for England. While Northern Ireland will start work on theirs in 2020.



Groups and projects

Voluntary groups across the UK dedicate their time to conserving red squirrels and are key to their survival. If you are interested in volunteering and would like to get involved with your local group please see our volunteering page under get involved.


Various projects and partnerships work to coordinate red squirrel conservation in different areas of the UK:

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels: www.scottishsquirrels.org.uk

Red Squirrels Northern England: www.rsne.org.uk

Red Squirrels United: www.redsquirrelsunited.org.uk

Red Squirrels Trust Wales: www.redsquirrels.info



Population decline

Red squirrel populations are mostly healthy on mainland Europe, but the the species has suffered major declines in the UK. The population has fallen from a high of around 3.5 million in the UK, to the current estimate of 140,000. Around 121,000 are found in Scotland, with the population in England thought to be as low as 15,000.


Predators, disease, roads and land-use change all pose threats to the native red squirrel. However, the introduction of the invasive grey squirrel from North America is the main reason behind the sharp decline since the 1800s.



Monitoring

A number of organisations and volunteer groups carry out monitoring of red and grey squirrels across the UK. Techniques include the use of camera traps, hair tubes and reporting sightings online and to local groups. This contributes to population mapping and density, and is important for rapid response to grey squirrel encroachment into red squirrel territories. Recent reports of red squirrels recolonising areas where grey squirrels have been controlled demonstrate the success of concerted and coordinated efforts.


Red squirrel by Theo Louis



Strongholds

A number of large forested areas were designated as red squirrel strongholds. They are largely coniferous and mixed forest, as these areas sustain red squirrel populations and give them a competitive advantage over the invasive grey squirrel - which outcompetes the red squirrel in broadleaf habitat.


In Northern England, 17 strongholds were designated in 2005. While 19 stronghold areas were identified in Scotland in 2009. Each supports a red squirrel population and can be defended from grey squirrel encroachment within a designated buffer zone where active grey squirrel management exists.



Grey squirrel management

Competition and disease transmission from grey squirrels are the main threats to red squirrel survival, so active grey squirrel management is a key conservation method. Please see our grey squirrel management page for more details.



Eradication

As they are a widespread invasive non-native species, the total removal of grey squirrels from the UK is a subject of much debate and differing viewpoints.


The Cornwall Red Squirrel Project has been working to remove grey squirrels from areas of Cornwall since 2011. This work has already resulted in a major reduction in tree damage from grey squirrel bark stripping. Their aim is to remove the grey squirrel threat from The Lizard and West Penwith and potentially reintroduce red squirrels to the county. They have also started a captive red squirrel breeding programme. The last wild red squirrel seen in Cornwall was in 1984.



Reintroductions

Following IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations, red squirrels could be reintroduced to areas they once colonised - providing there is ‘strong evidence that the threat(s) that caused any previous extinction have been correctly identified and removed or sufficiently reduced.


Trees for Life is running a red squirrel reintroduction programme in Scotland called The Reds Return. Since 2015 they have translocated 140 individuals from red squirrel strongholds to isolated areas of forest in the Scottish Highlands where they had previously died out. These areas have suitable red squirrel habitat and are currently free from grey squirrels and the squirrel pox virus. The project is progressing successfully with breeding taking place at the translocation sites and individuals dispersing to new areas.



Reinforcements

Another conservation method is to reinforce small populations of red squirrels with individuals from other areas. This has the benefit of preventing a remnant population from dying out, while also increasing its genetic diversity and resilience.


In the early 1990s a project was established to eradicate grey squirrels from the Isle of Anglesey. This saw the successful removal of grey squirrels from the island and the release of captive-bred red squirrels to reinforce the dwindling native population. Red squirrel numbers are now so high they are spreading out from Anglesey onto the mainland, where further grey squirrel management is being carried out to support them.


Red squirrel with hazelnut by Nicholas Box