“Most military strategists will tell you that if an army seeks to simply hold a fortress and only has its control in the fortress area, eventually that fortress will be overrun by the enemy.”
Standing in his garden in the Preston area, David Alan is answering a question about squirrels. The fortress he’s talking about is inhabited by reds and is not far away on the northwest English coast.
The surrounding area has been cleared of invasive greys – something volunteer squirrel rangers like Alan were involved in. That’s allowed reds to deploy in the ‘no mans land’ separating the populations of rival rodents, which expand through ‘dispersal’. That’s when parents of both squirrel types kick their kids out of their territory once they reach a certain age – behaviour not limited to the species.
Now the semi-circular buffer zone needs to stretch further inland.
“We have the desire to see the reds move out into fresh territories,” says Alan, “territories which originally they had been prolific in but had been pushed back into this single reserve area… The only way we can do that is by controlling the greys.”
The squirrel war has been underway for more than 100 years and, over the past few decades, Alan and other rangers have been on the frontline, defending the animals from the threat of extinction as they’re overrun by their bigger, plague-carrying relatives.
There’s a long list of complaints against greys, which have a habit of destroying habitats, including killing trees by stripping off bark, taking over holes birds nest in and eating nuts before they’re ripe leaving nothing for reds.
“When you actually remove [grey] squirrels from a woodland area, that woodland seems to come alive,” says Alan. “There are two methods [of control]. Firstly there’s trapping, which is probably the most popular way of doing it. Squirrels are caught in live traps then dispatched humanely… The other way is, of course, by shooting.”
Human involvement in the conflict began as an underground movement.
“We started off 30 years ago, doing it all very quietly and didn’t really advertise what we were doing,” says Jackie Foott of British Red Squirrels.
Foott’s role is more ‘diplomat’ than Alan’s. As a member of the Sedbergh faction, she brought all the Cumbria groups together. Now she says they “are well supported” and there’s an established national network – dozens of groups with thousands of volunteers and recognition from the authorities.
“Those volunteers come from all walks of life. Not everyone has to go out and shoot a grey squirrel, it can be somebody sitting in their own home watching the squirrels come to their feeders and reporting greys and marvelling at the reds and reporting them as well.”
For people like this there is a trap loan programme. They can call their local red squirrel support group to get a trap delivered to them. They’re taught how to use it and when it catches a grey, someone picks it up, the animal is dispatched and the trap returned.
“We have a lot of people who don’t agree with what we’re doing,” Foott admits, putting it down to education. “Much of the antis’ information is not completely accurate. They are blaming the red demise on extra cars on the road and loss of habitat. Well that’s not really true because… I can’t give you an exact figure but I understand there are more acres of woodland now in the UK than there was 100 years ago.”
Urban Squirrels is a grey-supporting ‘rescue’ centre in London. Under British law, there used to be a kill order on greys. Now that’s changed to making it illegal for them to be released, which means groups like Urban Squirrels are struggling to cope as their facilities fill up.
At least one grey may have been released illegally, according to Alan. Anglesey island off the northwest coast of Wales has been cleared of greys and is now a red sanctuary.
“It’s anecdotal,” he says, “but if a grey squirrel suddenly appears in Anglesey, It’s got to have arrived there from somewhere… It may have come across the Menai Bridge.”
Squirrels are smart so it’s not impossible. Alan suggests the surprise growth of sightings around truck stops along the M6 in England is the result of the animals hitching rides on lorries from Scotland travelling south during winter. The Anglesey case is different.
“If it appears sort of five miles into Anglesey in an area that has been free from grey squirrels… then you’ve got to say ‘Well how’s it got there?’ The chances are it’s somebody who wants to upset the apple cart.”
Foott is not optimistic about a truce between red and grey supporters.
“We’re very passionate about what we are doing and so are they… We’re very passionate about not allowing one more English animal to become extinct when there is something we can do about it. It has been proven scientifically… that if you keep the greys reduced in number and get rid of as many as you can, the reds will thrive and survive.”
Here are some of the groups using airguns to fight back against grey squirrels:
Allerdale Red Squirrel Group
Alston Moor Red Squirrel Group
Anglesey Red Squirrel Project
Brampton & District Red Squirrel Group
British Red Squirrel Forum
Cornwall Red Squirrel Project
European Squirrel Initiative
Garsdale Red Squirrel Group
Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Trust
Morpeth & District Red Squirrels
Northern Red Squirrels
Penrith & District Red Squirrel Group
Ponteland Red Squirrels Group
Red Squirrels Northern England
Sedbergh Red Squirrel Group
Solway Red Squirrel Group
South Lakes Red Squirrel Group
Tyne & Wear & Northumberland Red Squirrel Conservationalists
UK Squirrel Accord
West Lakes Squirrel Initiative
Westmorland Red Squirrels
Wight Squirrel Project