A nationally co-ordinated programme has been launched in an attempt to save Scotland’s red squirrel. The £1.3m project will develop habitats in which the red squirrel can thrive, but will also attempt to control the grey population by trapping and killing them.
To achieve this, a “red squirrel protection line” has been drawn across Scotland, stretching south-east from Montrose on the North Sea to Inveraray on the west coast. All grey squirrels caught north of this line will be culled. It is expected that many tens and thousands of greys will be killed, making this the largest mammal cull in the UK.
The number of British red squirrels has been declining since grey squirrels arrived from North America in the 19th Century. The larger and stronger greys easily out-compete reds for food and habitat and also carry squirrelpox; a virus which is harmless to greys but generally lethal in reds.
It is estimated that a mere 160,000 red squirrels are left in Britain – 75% of which live in Scotland – compared to approximately 3.3m greys.
Stuart Brooks, the SWT conservation director, told the guardian that unless concerted action is taken, reds could be extinct on mainland Britain within 30 years.
The project has received criticism from animal campaign organisations such as Advocates for Animals, who feel that the protection of the red squirrel should not come at the greys’ expense, and should be achieved through effective habitat management and the development of a squirrelpox vaccine. However, this could take decades to take effect, by which time, many fear, there may be no red squirrels left to protect.