Britain’s iconic red squirrel is in trouble.
The problem: The invasive Eastern grey squirrel, brought to England from North American about
140 years ago. Wealthy collectors in the 19th century
liked to keep gray squirrels as pets or release them onto their estates
as kind of a living lawn ornament. In fact, there’s genetic evidence that all of the
gray squirrels in Ireland are descended from 6 pairs sent as a wedding gift. The gray squirrel is bad news for the native red squirrels because they out-compete them for food and habitat. Worst of all, grays carry a virus called squirrelpox. It doesn’t harm
the gray squirrels, or people for that matter, but it is deadly to the reds. The many conservation groups are working to save the red squirrel have had some successes. Gray squirrels
have been eradicated from the Isle of Anglesey. It took 18 years, but now the
island’s red squirrels are on the rebound. There is hope that nature may help. The pine
marten, a relative of weasels, is a native predator. Scientists in Ireland
have noticed an intriguing pattern: where pine martens show up, the population
of gray squirrels declines and red squirrels start to recover.
It may be that red squirrels, which evolved with the pine marten, are better able to escape these tree climbing predators. The future of the red squirrel is looking brighter in the U.K. there’s still much to be done. The lesson for other countries is to prevent
gray squirrels from arriving at all, or getting rid of them as quickly as possible, and to definitely
not give them as wedding presents.