NATURE NOTES - Squirrel squabbles

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THE grey squirrels have moved back into the garden once again to steal the food in the bird feeders.

We thought that by buying feeders on the top of poles we’d keep the squirrels off – not a chance! Seeing one on top of the feeder happily munching away was the last straw and war has been declared! Next steps will be, firstly start lacing the seed and peanuts with a very hot chillie powder which the squirrels can taste but has no impact whatsoever on the birds. Then it will be to coat the pole with something really slippery – that should make going up the pole that much more difficult. We watched one climbing the pole and I must admit you have to admire their determination and skills – its little feet were going 10 to the dozen as it slowly ascended! Coming down was much quicker of course!

So how did these national pests come to the UK? A small number of grey squirrels were first introduced at Henbury in Cheshire in 1870. Then more were released at a number of sites through England. Given the small numbers of squirrels released, it did incredibly well. They started to spread further over the years, venturing further east, west and north.

It soon became very evident that as the Grey Squirrel spread and increased in numbers, the Red Squirrel retreated and the population began a gradual decline. That retreat has continued and many believe will continue until the threat of the grey squirrel is removed. It could be that in 20 years or less the red squirrel becomes extinct in England.

It is still unclear exactly how and why the Grey Squirrel ‘takes over’ the Red. It is thought however to be due to slow competition and ecological differences. There is no evidence to suggest that Grey Squirrels breed faster than Reds.

The complete removal of Grey Squirrels on Anglesey has allowed the Red Squirrels to breed and the young to survive, emphasizing that it is the presence of Grey squirrels that is the real problem for Red Squirrels.

Research has shown that the answer could well lie in the way each species uses the food available to them. Grey squirrels carry a lot more body fat than red squirrels, which gives them a better chance of surviving. The larger, more robust grey wins in the competition for food and space and that is one of the reasons why it is now widespread in England and Wales. It is more adaptable than the red squirrel and lives happily in hedgerow trees, parks, gardens, large woods and forests.

It may be that captive breeding and release programme into ‘grey’ free zones for red squirrels may help to halt the species decline – it seems to have worked with otters! We are hoping that the small pocket of Red Squirrels in Wigan continues to thrive and eventually colonise other areas in the borough - I will keep you posted.