Revival of the Reds

Inspired by Scotland: The Big Picture’s recent book I am deep in the heart of the Cairngorm’s alone in the newly built hide of squirrel whisperer, Neil McIntyre.

After a ten minute solitary wait, the silence is broken by the sound of small claws scuffling along the bark of the surrounding Birch and Scot’s pine. Growing louder, getting closer I catch the occasional flash of red through the labyrinth of branches above or a silhouette in the darker areas of the forest.

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Growing up in Dundee, my parents would regularly take me and my friends to the local parks. We would play football, cricket or run around the play areas pretending to be the power rangers. We were lucky, the parks were big open green spaces with tall, mature trees lining the pathways with ponds where we would often feed the mallards or swans. Occasionally though, high in the trees we would watch a squirrel leap from branch to branch, and I always remember it’s coat being red.

Since we started this blog, about 15 months ago, we have visited many local reserves looking for engaging species to photograph from beavers to great crested grebes; mountain hares to otters and one thing has become remarkably clear. Dundee is on the front line of the squirrel divide. Visit other Scottish cities such as the country’s capital Edinburgh and you will only see the invasive grey, ironic as the red squirrel is as synonymous with Scotland as the tartan that lines the Royal Mile. In our hometown however there are parks that are mostly reds and others which are full of greys. We have even witnessed a grey and a red within a of hundred metres of each other while walking through the Tay Reedbeds.

It’s unusual to see the two in such close quarters as the grey poses the greatest threat to our native squirrel. Being physically bigger, able to store more body fat and consume a larger range of food sources, they out compete reds for food and fair better in winter.

They also unwittingly carry the Parapoxvirus, better known as ‘Squirrelpox’. A virus which blinds the infected squirrel and also prevents them eating properly, typically leading to the squirrel perishing due to undernourishment within 15 days of becoming infected. Greys are unaffected by it, their ancestors having evolved an immunity, but 100% of wild Red’s that become infected do not survive.

Back in the hide I’m soon surrounded. At anytime 6 to 8 squirrels are bouncing around me on all sides, showing their dexterity and speed among the trees and branches.

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Squeaking and squabbling over nut stashes;

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Stopping to nibble on a nut they’ve decided not to take home.

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And occasionally posing among the bloom of the heather.

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While watching the reds scurry about the same feeling comes over me I had as a child. The feeling of awe watching a truly wild animal go about it’s business unconcerned by your presence.

All squirrels, grey or red, embody this ‘spirit of wildness’ and provide many people with a connection to nature even in the centre of a city. Therefore I understand why people find it hard to accept the need for the lethal control of greys, especially those who no longer encounter the beauty of our native squirrel in their locality.

But if we are to conserve to our remaining fragmented population of Reds in Scotland it is a necessary action. And one which is starting to aid their recovery in critical areas.

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An individual nibbles away among glorious native habitat.

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels has been trapping greys in strategic locations across Scotland attempting to prevent the spread of greys and squirrelpox since 2007. Their work has made a notable difference around Dundee and Tayside. Having halted the spread of greys further North into the beginning of the Highlands, they have also seen a reduction in greys and an increase of reds in the area. Across Scotland they are having similar success, generating hope of a stable or maybe even increasing population for the first time in over 100 years.

As the clock reaches one, all of the nuts that were laid out for the residents have gone, probably cached somewhere underground or up high up in a drey. Yet still they scurry around me searching for more.

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One individual even enters the hide, as if to ask for more.

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Luckily I can see Neil wading through the forest with a very large sack of nuts slung over his shoulder.

Hopefully, as our local populations start to recover and eventually increase in number, I’ll be able to befriend my local reds, relive my childhood and try to capture their wild spirit as they leap from branch to branch.

Thanks for reading.

Elliot.

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