To do your bit to save the indigenous red squirrel, you need to take an active role and be out on the ground, says Jon Snowdon.
We are fortunate in Northumberland to still have pockets of the native red squirrel in several areas. This is not by accident. The work that is quietly being carried out on estates by the shooting community is managing to sustain these populations. Every estate I have visited over the last few years has been actively controlling the grey squirrel to enable the native red to survive.
The grey is larger in size and a bit of a bully. It is generally able to survive better than the red due to its adaptability of habitat and its wider tolerance of food.
If the grey population is allowed to rise, then the smaller red will be unable sustain its population due to the rapid encroachment of the grey. This, in turn, will ultimately lead to a lack of food and habitat for the red.
The main threat has been that the grey carries the squirrel-pox (SQPV) virus. It will only take one grey to introduce that virus and the red population could be eradicated. There are, I believe, signs that some reds are becoming immune to the squirrel pox and hopefully, given time, the cheeky red population will become stronger and manage to develop an immunity.
Throughout Northumberland there are teams of people trapping and shooting the grey to assist the little red chap and give it time to recover from the grey invasion. It is a time-consuming but rewarding business. The traps used have obviously to be live traps or the reds will inevitably be caught too, although in my experience they seem to be more alert to the danger. That said, at times of food shortage a trap can be irresistible. The traps have to be checked at least twice a day, so that any animal caught does not suffer from the stress caused by being imprisoned. The reds are released and any greys captured are humanely despatched.
SHOOTING TIPS: Squirrel shooting! Mark, shooting coach at Grimsthorpe SG, on eliminating the grey plague.
How to trap grey squirrels humanely and legally
I remember when I first became involved in the management of greys: I was told to put a sack around the trap and get the grey into it. Hmm. Easier said than done. The first grey I trapped ran up my arm and bounded off my shoulder to the nearest tree, after what seemed a gladiatorial struggle.
I now use an air pistol for despatch because it is efficient, quick and above all, humane. Shooting with a shotgun or air rifle is also a clean and efficient method to help in the control. The greys you are trapping will become wary of the traps, so it is a good idea to move them frequently once a few have been caught. The bait I use is maize, which they can’t resist. But vary the bait. Nuts are also irresistible to the reds’ American cousin.
To the teams carrying out this work and the huge number of volunteers, more power to your elbow and keep up the good work.
The red is more inquisitive than the grey and I would hate not to have the cheeky red sitting above me on a branch complaining loudly of my presence.