Decision day for scheme to save the red squirrel

Heritage of the wild
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The Independent Online
If it were up to the public, the red squirrel would easily head the list of 116 British plant and animal species for which rescue plans have been proposed. Not one of the other threatened or declining species has won quite so much pity or affection.

The small red rodent's extinction clock started ticking when the larger, more adaptablegrey squirrel was introduced here from North America in the late 19th century. Once greys have arrived in an area the reds vanish15 years later.

This month, the Government will belatedly give its response to the rescue plans, which were drawn up by a large committee of wildlife charities, civil servants and Government and academic scientists.

The list, a follow-up to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, was unveiled last December. Now the wildlife conservationists are waiting to see how committed ministers are to turning plans into actions.

The price tag for saving the red squirrel is put at pounds 220,000 a year over and above what is already being spent on conservation efforts - making it among the most expensive creatures on the list. The Government is being asked to share the bill with sponsors and charities.

There are about 160,000 red squirrels left, mostly in Scotland, while the number of greys has climbed to 2.5 million. They are better adapted than the reds to Britain's wet, deciduous and highly fragmented woodlands.

Greys can live in higher population densities and are much more capable of moving across the open country. They are also better at digesting one of the most important available food items, acorns, and they breed faster.

The reds, whose optimal habitat is the drier, coniferous forest of the Continent, are expected to vanish from all but a few patches of England shortly after 2000, and from Wales thereafter, unless effective ways of controlling the grey squirrels are brought in. Only in the Scots Pine forests north of the border is there a good chance of them meeting the competition once the greys arrive. Red squirrels are also still widespread in Northern Ireland.

A foolproof way of controlling greys while safeguarding the reds has yet to be devised. The Forestry Commission has been researching a food hopper which can give poisoned bait to greys but not to the smaller reds.

Techniques for managing woodlands in a way which favours the reds are also being investigated. One proposed action is to create eight square miles of coniferous forest reserves in Wales.