Red-Squirrel-(c)-Mark-Hamblin-(Read-Only)
The nation’s native red squirrels are struggling to hold on to their last redoubts of natural forest against a stronger and more populous grey squirrel imported from North America Image Credit: Mark Hamblin

Under the dark shadows and heavy clouds of Snowdonia that stands sentinel over the northwest corner of north Wales, the commanders of the Royal Navy’s 11 nuclear submarines are known to traverse the narrow and heavy tidal waters between the mainland and the island of Anglesey laying 500 metres to the west.

Sailing the huge silent submarines — some carry enough nuclear warheads to destroy 16 separate targets with one strike — down the Menai Strait is a rite of passage, a peacetime war game for the Royal Navy’s silent service in a game of high stakes hide and seek.

In the heavily wooded banks on the island of Anglesey, there is another war being fought — one that will never result in nuclear warfare but one, should naturalists in the United Kingdom lose, will result in the annihilation of the last real redoubt of the red squirrel.

Five years ago, frustrated ministers at Westminster who went nuts trying to stop the invasion and subsequent domination of the bigger, strong and more resilient grey species from North America declared the war of the squirrels to be lost. But there’s a red resistance at work, still determined to hold on to the last red squirrel corners of Britain — determined that the domestic species will at least survive if unable to regain the trees and forests lost to its uppity North American cousin.

And like any good resistance movement — think Robin Hood in Nottingham Forest — an isolated base is as good as a staging post for resistance as you can get.

2.5 million

Estimated number of grey squirrels in the UK

Here, on Anglesey island, where the Menai Bridge provides the only fixed link between this red squirrel redoubt and the rest of the mainland Britain — where the greys are dominant — the British squirrels are preparing for a comeback. As long as the greys are kept off the island, there’s a fighting chance for the reds. It’ll be a long war, but the reds have the natural world’s justice — and once upon a time British law — on their side.

This island’s forests are plentiful and alongside roads, stern notices warn humans that these lands are the preserve of the red squirrels. Here, all signs are bilingual between English and native Welsh, spoken with verve by those in Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party who would like to see the principality one day break away from the UK, must as with Scottish nationalists north of the English border.

Welsh nationalist territory or not, Newborough forest and nature sanctuary covers 8 square km of mostly sandy dunes in which extensive pine tree planting took place in 1950s. Those pines, along with the abundant oak trees, provide enough isolated shelter and food to support a healthy population of red squirrels — as long as the predatory greys are kept safely away on the eastern side of the Menai Strait.

There’s a £5 (Dh24) fee for vehicles entering the reserve, camping is forbidden, so too are barbeques and open fires — any activity that might disturb or threaten the native reds.

On a damp winter’s afternoon, it’s difficult to spot the reds high in the trees. Certainly, on the forest floor, there’s plenty of signs of their presence, with discarded shells of acorns showing where they’re been or thrown their finished meals away. They don’t hibernate in winter months but are less active and are mostly spotted in the evening hours.

The first recorded mention of grey squirrels came in 1876 when wealthy Victorian landowners brought the larger North American greys to Britain, most notably by the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey where they thrived. The greys, along with imported peacocks from the Indian colony and muntjac deer from Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, were all meant to be living ornaments in the English landscaped gardens, neat forests and manicured lawns surrounding country homes.

At the time, the UK’s native red squirrel population was thriving — and it’s estimated now that there were more than 3.5 million reds then up and down Britain. Indeed, the reds were viewed as vermin by some for their habit of stripping bark from some species of newly-planted trees. The reds had few natural predators to worry about other than pine martens — a relative to minks or ferrets — or hunters who sold about 20,000 annually to meat markets in London during the later years of the 19th century.

Similarly, there were few predators too for the greys, whose population exploded once they reached the UK with its milder winters.

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The grey squirrels were Introduced into the UK by the Victorians in the 1800s

Today, it’s estimated that there are more than 2.5 million greys in the UK while the red numbers have declined to about 150,000, with just 10 per cent of those still surviving in England’s forests — making the Welsh colonies all the more critical to the native species’ survival.

The greys are larger, consume more, and eat acorns while they are still immature and green. That deprives the reds of their vital food source.

The greys also carry a virus that’s proven deadly to the reds, driving down their numbers to the present day levels. Researchers say that more than 60 per cent of greys carry the squirrel pox virus but are unaffected by it. For reds, it’s deadly. Scientists have tried to find a remedy but have so far failed.

Greys breed more often and with more offspring, and they carry more natural fat that allows them to easily survive the milder UK winters.

Nearly 60 years after the first greys were released into the British countryside, those responsible for forestry began to notice the balance of squirrel power shifting to the greys. By 1932, it was illegal to free a grey squirrel into the woods and, by the middle of that decade, the UK’s Ministry of Agriculture was urging farmers and hunters to shoot the greys on sight, and offered free shotgun cartridges to ensure that happened. It was a squirrel skirmish, however, that wasn’t won, and the British Forestry Commission turned to chemical warfare on the greys in the 1970s — using rat poison to kill as many invaders as possible.

Legally, any UK land or homeowner was required to kill greys if they were on their property. The Grey Squirrels Prohibition of Importation and Keeping Order of 1937 was a law though that was tough to enforce when people viewed the bigger, tamer greys as cute, furry and friendly visitors. Up to 2014, when the law was dropped, the UK’s Ministry for Environment could not cite a single case where a homeowner was prosecuted for having greys.

For hard-line reds’ supporters, feeding greys was akin to collaboration and fraternalising with the enemy invader.

The squirrel war too caught the attention of the UK royal household, with Prince Charles serving as patron for the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. The heir to the throne has also joined in on public education campaigns to cull the greys and protect the reds. As a boy growing up on the Sandringham Estate in the English countryside in Norfolk and at the Balmoral Castle estates in Scotland, he fed the reds.

1876

First recorded mention of a grey squirrel

“My great ambition is to have one in the house,” he once commented on the reds, “Sitting on the breakfast table and on my shoulder.”

The war of the squirrels, however, also points to the threat of invading non-natural species who now are too comfortable and too many at home across the UK. According to a UK parliamentary committee report in 2012, there were 1,875 non-native species in Britain, with 282 of those deemed to be “invasive” — including Japanese knotweed, killer shrimp and zebra mussels from the Black and Caspian Sea, and the North American crayfish.

There is hope, however, by being able to isolate the last pockets of reds on Anglesey, the Isle of Wright and in Scotland, with public education campaigns helping raise awareness of the threats posed by the greys.

But if you believe that the lesson of the squirrel wars and their innocent introduction of ornaments have been learnt and that it couldn’t happen now, think again.

In mid-March, Waterways Ireland issued a warning to be on the alert for “a very large invasive rodent” species that were spotted along the banks of a Dublin canal.

Sightings of coypu — a semi-aquatic creature with orange teeth, webbed feet, a long tail and looking like a cross between a beaver, an otter and a very large rat — native to wetlands of Central and South America, have become frequent near Irish rivers. It’s believed the animals were introduced as a novelty attraction to a pet farm, but some escaped in 2014…

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.