Meeting Report: Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels

23 March 2019
Castle Douglas Meeting
Stephanie Johnstone

Dr Stephanie Johnstone, Conservation Officer, South West Scotland, although from Australia originally, has lived in Dumfries and Galloway for many years.

She outlined the differences between the red squirrel and the grey squirrel and the threats to the red from the grey and from squirrel pox which is carried by the grey squirrels. The reds are native to Scotland, are approximately 300gm to the greys 550gm, vary in colour but always have tufted ears. They have been here for some 7000 years whereas the greys were introduced from America in 1876. The greys have a very wide habitat, including urban areas, whereas the reds need forests, which have declined to approximately 4% of their original area.

The red squirrels build ‘dreys’, one summer and one winter, have a diet of berries, mushrooms, seeds, insects and breed from 11 months when they are sexually mature and polygamous. Their babies, ‘kittens’, become independent at 10 weeks.

Stephanie discussed ‘why save?’ and the main threats. The red squirrel is a native breed, a key indicator of forest health and a major part of the food chain for carnivores but it is seriously threatened by habitat loss, cats and dogs and road traffic kills as well as native predators. The biggest threat is the grey squirrel in competition for food, of which it eats more, and more efficiently, and has a higher survival rate and digs up the reds’ supply of nuts. The grey also carries the squirrel pox virus, which only affects reds but can be passed on by greys and results in death in 15 days.

The grey squirrel does millions of pounds worth of damage; it damages woodlands, rings and kill trees, and is a real threat to native woodland in the UK. They also take birds and chicks, deprive native wildlife of food and even invade and damage premises.

From 1945 to 2010 grey squirrels have taken over all of England, except Cumbria, and the central belt of Scotland but it is estimated that there are 1,250,000 red squirrels in Scotland, mainly in the Highlands and Dumfries and Galloway.

A thirty-year strategy has been developed with five-year funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and three years from the Leader Project for Dumfries and Galloway.

In Dumfries and Galloway the reds have an advantage because they require conifer forest and Galloway Forest is the largest commercial forest in the UK. It has been agreed that landowners will not clear fell, will leave planting corridors, will plant small seeded trees and thus will create mixed-age forests. It has also been agreed that, to control the spread of squirrel pox, greys will be removed.

A series of Community Action Groups has also been developed and there are nine networks in Dumfries and Galloway. They carry out Spring monitoring surveys and manage to remove most grey squirrels. They have created a squirrel sighting map which can be seen on the website

The long term plan is to further research a contraceptive for grey squirrels, although that might not be available for ten years and, on a positive note for Dumfries and Galloway, pine martens kill grey squirrels and we have a pine marten population in this area.