You may not think it and may not have seen one but red squirrels are living right on your doorstep in Abernethy and the surrounding area. For example, Pitmedden forest has a sizable population of red squirrels, as does Moncreiffe Hill outside Bridge of Earn. Red squirrels have even been spotted within Abernethy itself. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people at both the last Gala day and Abernethy primary school Eco day who told me of these occasional visitors to their gardens and I have even received photographic evidence to prove it!
Sadly however, your chances of catching a glimpse one of Scotland’s most instantly recognisable and charming native species is reducing all the time. Already driven to extinction in the last 60 years from most of England and Wales and disappearing rapidly from Ireland, the red squirrel is in real trouble. Scotland represents its last stronghold in the British Isles. It is estimated that around 75% of the remaining population of red squirrels is to be found in Scotland and Perthshire is a stronghold for them. So what is causing this rapid decline? The answer is simple – its grey American cousin.
Most people do not realise that the grey squirrel, or to give it its proper title, the Eastern Grey squirrel is not a native species of the UK but rather of the eastern United States. It was deliberately released in Scotland (Argyll & Dumbarton) in the 1890s. It was then released in Edinburgh in 1913 and Dunfermline in 1919.
Since then greys have spread rapidly, appearing in Perthshire at Comrie and Callander by the 1940s and in Kinross and Dollar by the 1950s. Today grey squirrels are found throughout lowland Perth & Kinross and are now regularly seen as far north at Pitlochry. So why is the grey squirrel causing the extinction of the red? There are two main reasons for this: competition and disease.
Firstly, grey squirrels out compete red squirrels for food and shelter - to put it bluntly they starve the reds out. It has been estimated that reds typically die out of an area in about 15 years if greys are allowed to become established and the habitat is favourable.
Secondly, grey squirrels are carriers of a virus known as ’squirrelpox’ which is harmless to them but deadly to the reds. This disease can kill all red squirrels in an area that come into contact with an infected grey squirrel in a matter of days, usually 15 to 20. To date there have been no known outbreaks in Perth & Kinross but it is regarded as only a matter of time as infected animals have already crossed the border from England.
Yet there is hope. If you are appalled at the demise of the red squirrel and like hundreds of other people across the region determined to do something about it, there are a number of steps you can take. The most straightforward is to report sightings of either red or grey squirrels so that organisations such as Perth & Kinross Red Squirrel Group (PKRSG) can better understand where to channel resources. To do this, simply go to the website: www.pkrsg.com -> Get involved -> Report sightings. For those who want to go further and actively control grey squirrels on their land (as many already do), a trap loan scheme is available, as is expert training from British Association of Conservation and Shooting (BASC).
If you want to get involved, show your support or simply learn more about red and grey squirrels, please go the PKRSG website: www.pkrsg.com or get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org - we would love to hear from you.
Simon Poots is the current chair of Perth & Kinross Red Squirrel Group and lives at Carpow, just outside Abernethy.