Threats, why are red squirrels endangered?
The red squirrel is officially classed as near threatened in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but is locally common in Scotland.
The main cause behind their decline is the introduction of grey squirrels to England from America in the 1870’s onwards. This is mainly because:
Greys colonise and then dominate habitats where red squirrels are present, essentially pushing them out of preferred forest and woodland areas. Greys out compete reds for food and resources
Grey squirrels carry various infections with them including the squirrelpox virus. This is passed on to the reds but they have little immunity to this and usually die within four weeks
When red squirrels are put under pressure this affects their ability to reproduce successfully and is another contributing factor to population decline.
Another huge factor in red squirrel decline is the loss of woodland habitats over the last century, but road traffic and predators are all threats too.
The difference between red and grey squirrels
Red squirrels are recognisable by their red to russet fur, ear tufts and long, fluffy tails. But the colour of their coat can vary with some reds appearing very grey (and some grey squirrels can have red fur down their backs and on their feet). Reds have small ear tufts that develop into large tufts in winter.
One of the best ways to determine if you are looking at a red or grey squirrel, (if you were looking at a black and white picture for instance) is the distinct difference in their tails. Each individual hair on a grey squirrel's tail is made up of bands of colour, with each one having a white tip. Together these white tips combine to create a distinctive white 'halo' effect around the grey’s tail which is visible even in poor light. Reds do not have this ‘halo’.
Grey squirrels and the law
The grey squirrel is regarded as an invasive non-native species following its inclusion under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (WCA). Grey squirrels are also listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) international list of 100 worst invasive non-native species. This highlights the damage that grey squirrels cause to our native flora and fauna; a problem severe enough to be recognised at a level of global significance. As such, the grey squirrel is regarded as a pest species and is afforded no protection under UK law. Under Schedule 9 of the WCA, it is illegal to release a grey squirrel into the wild, or allow one to escape.
This means if you trap one, you are obliged to humanely dispatch it. You must not let it go as this act would be illegal. Anyone who carries out, or knowingly causes or permits any of the above acts to occur could be committing an offence.