Red squirrels: The creature that everyone knows but is hardly seen

RSPB’s new annual survey highlights the dangers of once familiar animals disappearing from our gardens, while a few thrive

Environment Editor

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The vast majority of Britons have never seen a red squirrel, according to a new survey which highlights how the native species has been decimated by the invasion of the grey squirrel.

Only five per cent of the population has ever seen a red squirrel in their garden, with that number falling to less than one per cent across the south of England and in the Midlands.

The species is more prevalent in its last remaining strongholds in the North-east and Scotland, where almost one in five people see them on a monthly basis, according to the first in a series of annual RSPB surveys on the prevalence of eight non-bird species in UK gardens.

However, even in the north of the country red squirrel sightings are well below those for their grey rivals. More than nine tenths of Britons have seen a grey squirrel in their garden at some point, with 71 per cent seeing them on a monthly basis.

“These figures further underline that there is a problem for this species, which is clinging on in just a few small areas,” said RSPB conservation scientist Dr Daniel Hayhow.

Dr Hayhow said he was also disappointed by the low levels of hedgehog sightings revealed by the survey. Hedgehog numbers have declined by about a third since 2000, primarily because development has reduced suitable habitat.

“It is shocking that only 21 per cent of people have ever seen a hedgehog in their garden. This is an animal that everybody knows, but increasingly this is only through books – these figures show the extent of their decline,” he said.

The survey also showed that 69 per cent of Britons had never seen a badger in their garden, while 13 per cent see them at least monthly.

In addition to squirrels, hedgehogs and badgers, the RSPB survey recorded garden-sightings of the common frog, the common toad, roe deers and muntjac deers.

The common frog was the most abundant garden amphibian in the survey – when they are not hibernating – with half of the half-million participants recording they see them on a monthly basis. In contrast, toads were seen by only 28 per cent of people every month.

Dr John Wilkinson, science programme manager at the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC), said: “It’s great to know that frogs and toads are still widespread in UK gardens, which are a crucial habitat for both of them, but worrying that toads are relatively so much less common, especially in England.”

Both the muntjac deer – seen on a monthly basis by 6.12 per cent – and the roe deer – 7.88 per cent – were more common in the garden than the red squirrel.

Grey squirrels threaten the existence of red squirrels because of the lethal squirrel parapoxvirus they carry, which affects the native species because few have antibodies to deal with it.

As a result, a non-native species from North, Central and south-eastern America has decimated most of the red squirrel population since arriving on UK shores in 1828.

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