Harriet Ritvo

British Red Squirrel

Red and grey squirrels distribution in the British Isles in 1945 and 2010. © Craig Shuttleworth/RSST
According to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which claims to monitor the global conservation status of animals, fungi, and plants, the British red squirrel is far from extinct. With a range that extends from Siberia to Ireland, it is not even endangered; although its overall numbers have been decreasing, the Red List categorizes it as of “Least Concern.” Nevertheless, the species has become the object of energetic conservation campaigns within Britain, where, as a result of rapid decline in the course of the last century, only a few small populations remain south of Scotland. Their disappearance has not, however, left Britain bereft of squirrels. As the number of red squirrels has diminished that of gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) has increased. Native to eastern North America, gray squirrels were brought to Britain as pets in the nineteenth century; escapees turned out to thrive in their adopted homeland, where they are now characterized as invasive. They are the proximate cause of the red squirrels’ demographic collapse. Being larger and stronger, they can outcompete the native red species for food and habitat; in addition they transmit a squirrelpox virus that is lethal to red squirrels.

Defenders of red squirrels in their remaining strongholds keep an anxious watch on the continuing expansion of the grays. One of these strongholds is the Lake District of Cumbria in northwestern England, where because of the region's remoteness from human population centers and its unsuitability for intensive development, remnant populations of several species have lingered after becoming extinct in most other English regions. Beatrix Potter, “Squirrel Nutkin,” in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), Wikimedia Commons. The same conditions have delayed the arrival of introduced species. Thus a late nineteenth-century catalogue of local wild animals included only the indigenous red squirrel, but by 1970, a similar survey noted that “stragglers” of the invading gray squirrel had been reported since World War II; its author “profoundly hoped” that they had not begun to breed. Gray squirrels have, however, subsequently established themselves in several parts of the Lake District, and seem likely to outcompete the red squirrels there, as they have done elsewhere in Britain. (An informal survey of Lake District roadkill suggests that red squirrels may also be relatively deficient in the skills required to adapt to modern life.)

The definition of the British red squirrel as endangered, at least in England and Wales, and the enthusiasm inspired by the campaign to protect it shows that extinction can be understood in political as well as scientific terms. The red squirrel in its doomed struggle to resist the transatlantic onslaught has sometimes served as a national symbol of embattled purity and isolation. For example, when the Heritage Lottery Fund made a substantial award to protect what supporters affectionately termed "the real Squirrel Nutkin" (the hero of one of Beatrix Potter’s children’s books), the grant drew praise from politicians representing the entire political spectrum, not just the mainstream parliamentary parties, but also the "patriotic nationalist" British National Party, which, according to its website, in general wishes to protect “Britain’s iconic wildlife.”

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 2014. Sciurus vulgaris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2019-1.


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