Conservation of red squirrels in Tayside

Saving Scotland’s red squirrel was the focus of the latest Probus Club meeting which was chaired by Bob Berrie.

After dealing with club business Bob introduced the speaker Ken Neill, a wildlife officer who is employed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust on a five-year project with a specific remit for red squirrel conservation in the Tayside area, until 2014.

It is estimated that there are around 160,000 red squirrels in the UK, 75 per cent of these (121,000) are found in Scotland, and they are considered an endangered species.

While red squirrels fall prey to other wildlife by far the greatest danger to their continued existence is the appearance of grey squirrel to many areas in Scotland, with perhaps the exception of Highland Region.

The American Grey squirrels were first released into Scotland at Helensburgh in 1891, Edinburgh in the 1890’s and Pittencrieff in 1920.

The explosion in the grey squirrel population has resulted in large reductions in the indigenous species numbers as grey squirrels, being larger animals, consumed more food than the red squirrel and there’s not enough food to go around.

Ken pointed out that it is a misconception that the grey squirrels are the more aggressive of the two species and has indeed witnessed the very opposite behaviour.

The diet of both consists of pine cone seeds, hazelnuts, fungus, tree flowers and Ken again dispelled the commonly held belief - squirrels don’t hibernate in the winter.

Both the grey and red squirrels live about six years, but a few, the speaker said, have reached “bus pass age”. Another interesting fact that he highlighted was that the red squirrels actually moult, with the hair thinning in summer.

Other threats to the red squirrel are caused by deforrestation, building developments which reduce their habitat and, of course, road traffic accidents.

The strategies employed to reduce the population of the grey squirrels was outlined, and most of these methods have, it seems, been effective.

The slide presentation showed the incidence of the squirrelpox virus. While greys have built up immunity very few reds fight off the infection.

Finally Ken asked his audience to report sightings of grey squirrels in the area as quickly as possible.

Iain Rae gave the vote of thanks.