In Defence Of Grey Squirrels

The North American grey squirrel was first introduced to the UK in 1876. If you live in the UK, you’ll be well aware of how vilified the grey squirrel is here; it’s been accused of a multitude of sins, from almost wiping out the native red squirrels to killing trees by stripping away the bark. Much as I love grey squirrels, I always assumed the accusations were true; it seemed that the squirrels’ destructiveness was a consequence of their introduction into a region where they didn’t belong.

My views changed when I attended a talk at South West Vegan Festival which aimed to debunk the most commonly-held myths about grey squirrels. I thought I’d share with you what I learnt in an attempt to establish the innocence of these beautiful creatures.

Red And Grey Squirrels Don’t Usually Compete For Food

Red squirrels can only live in certain regions as they favour specific types of tree – larch, Norway spruce and lodgepole pine, for example. Grey squirrels, on the other hand, can live almost anywhere. As a result, the two species rarely share the same habitat. This means there is very little competition for food between them.

Human destruction of red squirrel habitat is a much more significant cause of the decline in their numbers than competition from grey squirrels. In fact, red squirrel populations were in decline before grey squirrels were even introduced to the UK. This habitat loss means that squirrels are frequently unable to find enough food for themselves and their young, leading to starvation. Human activity is responsible for 61-94% of red squirrel deaths, and road accidents are now an even bigger culprit than habitat loss.

As was pointed out in the talk, if grey squirrels ceased to exist then we wouldn’t see red squirrels return to our parks and gardens – for the most part, they never lived there in the first place!  It just isn’t the right kind of habitat for them. I’d personally rather have grey squirrels than no squirrels.

Grey Squirrels Don’t Infect Red Squirrels With Pox

Only 2% of unnatural red squirrel deaths are caused by pox. Moreover, it’s very rare for the disease to be transmitted from grey to red squirrels. The largest ever known pox outbreak took place over fourteen districts, but as grey squirrels were only present in four of these, it’s highly unlikely that they were responsible. In the vast majority of cases, pox is transmitted from one red squirrel to another via faeces, saliva and lesions.

Squirrels Don’t Kill (Many) Trees

In the winter, squirrels may strip away tree bark if they are desperate for food. However, this will only kill the tree if it is already old or weak. Only a few percent of the trees damaged by squirrels die as a result.

Furthermore, grey squirrels are the world’s biggest forest regenerators; they lose 30% of the seeds they bury, and these often germinate. They also eat the insects and larvae which attack seeds. It’s estimated that they plant millions of trees every year, far outweighing any damage they may do.

Squirrels Are Not A Threat To Songbirds

Research has shown that the presence of grey squirrels has no negative impact on songbird populations. In the case of small birds, the impact is actually positive, though it’s unclear why this is.

Conclusion

False claims such as those discussed above have been widely used as an excuse to cull grey squirrels in extremely cruel ways. The most horrific of these involves killing nursing mothers so that their young will starve to death. Lethal traps are also commonly used. Over 500 squirrels are killed every day in the UK.

It’s time to change the way we think about these animals. The lady who gave the talk pointed out that we often use prejudiced language to refer to grey squirrels – ‘alien species’ and ‘invasive species’, for example. She explained that grey squirrels don’t even fit the definition of an invasive species as they don’t have a negative impact on native species. ‘Alien’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’.

If this topic sparks your interest, visit the website of the Interactive Centre for Scientific Research About Squirrels (ICSRS) for more information. You’ll also find citations for all the facts I’ve mentioned.

Please share this post to help change people’s perceptions of our squirrel friends!

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5 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thank you for this insightful post! Humans tend to meddle far too much in the natural state of being. By disrupting the natural order and reducing the population of one species, surely there will be negative consequences on another species. We tend to be shortsighted about the long-term destruction that can occur as the result of our interference. What a great example in this post…if we were to lose gray squirrels, we would experience a significant reduction in forest regeneration! Thanks again for sharing!




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