That angry question came into my head on Christmas day when I found the little corpse of what may have been the last native red squirrel in this corner of Scotland.
The Paxton Trust, with the support of its friends and neighbours and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, has been nurturing the fragile population of red squirrels in woodlands between the Tweed and the Whiteadder for more than 20 years. By protecting their habitat, by providing hazelnuts, and above all by fighting off invasive grey squirrels, we sustained Paxton’s vigorous little colony of native reds. And our volunteers constructed an easily accessible hide so that visitors could see the native species in their natural setting. Thousands of people have enjoyed the spectacle of these splendid little mammals climbing trees and jumping between branches as they have done ever since the ice age.
But somebody brought American grey squirrels across the Atlantic about 100 years ago. Greys are much bigger and far more prolific than our native species, so wherever they go they crowd out the original population of red squirrels. Greys have been described as tree rats – they damage trees and they can become a nuisance as scavengers in urban areas. The rapid spread of greys has left very few pockets of red squirrels in England, and they are now spreading across Scotland.
The first grey squirrel was seen at Paxton about 12 years ago, and we were advised to shoot or trap them as the only way to protect our reds. The population of greys in the surrounding area increased inexorably, but assiduous control of greys has protected Paxton as a little bastion for native squirrels. Until now.
The big threat has been the squirrel pox disease, tolerated and therefore carried by the larger greys, but fatal for reds. We could control the greys as they came to Paxton, but there was still the risk that an infected grey squirrel would transmit the disease to our colony of reds before it could be trapped or shot. That is what must have happened in December. The sight of dead and dying red squirrels is heart-rending – there appear to be no survivors.
Now the Paxton Trust hopes to find ways to control the greys even more effectively and to keep them further away from Paxton, with a view to re-introducing native red squirrels here as soon as possible.
But this tragedy in a corner of rural Berwickshire should be a warning for the whole of Scotland. What has happened over a few short weeks at Paxton could be repeated all too rapidly all over Scotland.
• John Home Robertson is a founding member of the Paxton Trust and former MP and MSP.