Preserving red squirrels means hunting their grey cousins

A pistol-packing wildlife control officer has grey squirrels in his sights

Rusty, a wee, wiry, weatherbeaten man in his mid-fifties, is stalking carefully through a wooded estate near Dumfries. A clenched roll-up points the way, and GPS keeps him right. He is carrying two steel-cage traps and in his bag there’s a pistol. A former gamekeeper and – since boyhood – a keen outdoorsman, he pauses now and then, peering out from beneath his tweed cap to note with satisfaction the tracks of an otter, badger or deer. But mostly he keeps moving. Today, like every day, he only has one animal in his sights. “It’s a bloody damn pity they’ve got to be killed,” he says, “but that’s the way it is.” Rusty is a control officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. He has shot somewhere in the region of 2,000 grey squirrels.

The war against greys has been fought in earnest for three years and will be fought for at least two more. The project Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels – a partnership between the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and others – was set up in 2009 and the culling of greys began in the spring of that year. Greys are being targeted in strategic areas, particularly Aberdeenshire, Tayside, the Borders, Argyll and Trossachs, to prevent them invading the strongholds of Scotland’s native red squirrels. More than 7,000 have been killed so far by control officers. It was announced last month that government funding would allow the culling to continue until at least 2014.

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Grey squirrels – Sciurus carolinensis – are native to North America and were first introduced to Britain in the 19th century. They were exotics then, kept in cages for the diversion of the rich. The story goes that in 1876 one Thomas Unett Brocklehurst released a pair of greys on the Henbury estate in Cheshire. From this bushy-tailed Adam and Eve, the whole of England’s silvery multitude has come. By 1922 they were already widespread, but not yet mundane. A member of the government in that year described them as “sneaking, thieving, fascinating little alien villains”.

Scotland’s greys are thought to have their origins in Canada. They are believed to have been released or escaped in Dunfermline, on the western shore of Loch Lomond, and – in 1913 – from Edinburgh Zoo. Victorians liberating these creatures would, presumably, have had little idea of the consequences of their actions.

Where greys settle, red squirrels suffer. Greys are much bigger, they are better at storing food, and they appear to produce more and stronger young. Most importantly, say conservationists, the greys can carry a virus – squirrel pox – which causes them no harm but which is lethal to reds. Scotland’s estimated 200,000 to 300,0000 grey squirrels do not, for the most part, carry the disease. However, the fear is that pox could spread into Scotland from England where it is rife, and go on to destroy the red squirrel population. Grey squirrels travel along the course of rivers – such as the Tweed – following the trees on riverbanks. It is also believed that they effectively hitch lifts on long-distance lorries, stowing away amid loads of timber and bales of hay. Hence Rusty is kept busy every day checking and setting traps. His is a lethal form of border control.

I can’t give Rusty’s proper name. Nor can his face be shown. His employers are concerned that he might be a target for animal rights activists. There have been threatening phone calls – “You murdering bastard, I’m going to come and burn your house down” – but he takes comfort in the belief that he is performing a public service.

“The red squirrels round here would not be here if I hadn’t been killing the greys,” he says. “I mean, two thousand. Imagine if they’d been left. We’d be overrun. If I didn’t think I was doing any good, I wouldn’t be doing it, I assure you. I’ve got a great respect for everything in the countryside, and I don’t kill for killing’s sake. It would be brilliant to see the reds and greys living side by side, but it ain’t going to happen.”

Rusty’s squirrel cages are about three feet long and half a foot high and deep. They open at one end and are baited with maize. He hangs them from nails in hardwood trees. An animal venturing inside triggers a trap which closes the door behind it. Rusty checks set traps within 24 hours, and lets out anything which is not a grey squirrel. While I am with him he releases a couple of reds. These bound from the cage, a russet blur, and scurry up the nearest tree, seemingly none the worse for their period of confinement. If the trap contains a grey, however, Rusty pushes a sort of wooden comb down through the cage, containing the animal at one end, and shoots it in the head with his air pistol. He takes no pleasure in this, beyond, perhaps, the satisfaction of a job well done.

Why, though, favour the red squirrels? Why not just let nature take its course? “The reds belong here,” says Rusty, whose nickname – based on hair which was once ginger – perhaps predisposes him to favour the species. “They’re good Scottish animals. It would be such a shame to see them disappear. People said it would never happen in England. But it has.”

There are thought to be around 160,000 red squirrels living in the UK today, and an estimated two million to three million greys. Three-quarters of the entire UK population of reds live in Scotland, and the remaining English reds are now restricted mostly to managed refuge sites in the far north of England. In just 60 years, less than a human lifetime, most of the English reds have died out. Once a British icon, manifested in such beloved incarnations as Squirrel Nutkin and Tufty the road safety squirrel, the red has become as much a symbol of Scottishness as the stag. You are, however, much more likely to see a stag. Though it is possible to buy red squirrel postcards and other merchandise at gift shops from the Borders to the Highlands, your chances of spotting one are fairly remote.

This is why the cull is potentially tricky from a public relations perspective. Relatively few people in Scotland see the reds. The majority population living in the central belt have little direct personal relationship with them. Red squirrels are stuffed in museums or stare bright-eyed from tourism posters. The greys, by contrast, are the squirrels that live around most people and which they may even admire. For those of us who live in cities, especially, the grey squirrel is a welcome sight, appearing amiable, intelligent, opportunistic and unafraid. It is difficult to think of this gallus creature nicking nuts from the garden bird table as foreign invader that must die so that others can live.

Angus Macmillan, a retired businessman living near Balloch, campaigns against the cull as Professor Acorn; this soubriquet is especially apposite as one of the advantages greys have over reds is that they are able to eat the seeds of oak trees. Macmillan believes that Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is a waste of public money, arguing that the control measures do not and will not work. He also takes issue with the whole idea that the reds are native to Scotland, and makes a case that the current population is descended from squirrels introduced from Europe by fur traders in the 12th century. That, though, is a mere debating point. Macmillan’s main argument is that the killing is simply wrong.

“The cull is quite immoral,” he says. “It’s grossly unfair that any mammal should suffer extermination just because they are seen as not being acceptable. It is ethnic cleansing, almost, the way they refer to non-native species. Grey squirrels have been here for in the region of 45 generations. I’m sure few people can trace their families back that far.” He encourages members of the public to block the entrance to traps with rocks.

Such behaviour would, doubtless, find little favour with Dr Mel Tonkin, project manager of Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels. For her, the culling of greys is an opportunity to put right the effects of human meddling. She is very worried about the spread of squirrel pox. “The disease is travelling so rapidly that it’s beginning to be quite scary,” she says. “It’s making giant strides that we weren’t expecting. We’ve got greys carrying the squirrel pox close to big populations of squirrels in the central belt. Until these last couple of months I was quite hopeful about our chances. Now it’s on a knife edge.”

Grey squirrels carrying pox have been discovered recently in Uplawmoor, only a few miles south of Glasgow. The worry is that if the disease spreads to the big cities of the central belt it would transmit eventually into red squirrel populations in Tayside, Argyll and beyond. Trying to cull all the squirrels in Glasgow and Edinburgh would be, says Tonkins, too expensive, too big a job, and too unpalatable to be a realistic option, though there are plans to sample urban greys to see if they do have the pox. A grey squirrel-free Aberdeen is, she says, a much more likely prospect, though we may be 20 years away from that.

Meanwhile, back in Dumfriesshire, Rusty is cradling a dead grey in his hands. It has blood on its face and lies limp, all its charm and vivacity gone. “Someone once told me,” says the control officer, “that God put these creatures here. No, he didn’t. The Americans did. God put me here to catch them.” «