Giving a new chance to an old forest friend

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The Independent Online
A national scheme to save the red squirrel - one of our most endangered species - the red squirrel - from being driven out of Britain was launched in London yesterday.

At the turn of the century, the creature was so widespread that it was viewed as a pest, but since the introduction of the grey squirrel, its numbers have declined so dramatically that it may die out within 20 years.

Dr Tom Tew, senior mammologist with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, said: "They are declining before our eyes, and if we are going to tip the balance back ... we must conserve the few we have left until their habitat can be changed to suit them".

Only about 160,000 red squirrels survive, in just a few areas of the country, compared with about 2.5 million greys. There are colonies in forests in Scotland and parts of Wales, as well as a few outposts in Cumbria and Northumbria. Small populations still exist near Thetford in Norfolk, Cannock Chase in Staffordshire and on the Isle of Wight, where the grey has failed to establish itself. The grey is so much stronger that within15 years of its arriving in an area, the red squirrels have usually completely disappeared.

Now, the JNCC has produced a plan for foresters, landowners and local groups to encourage the preservation of the red squirrel. This includes planting coniferous trees (its natural habitat) and thinning out some deciduous forests. Grey squirrels are to be discouraged from foraging in red territory by depriving them of their footholds in the forests.Reds love ripe hazelnuts, but because the greys can digest them before they mature, the reds eventually starve to death.

In some areas, where the threat from the greys is extreme, the population will be controlled, but there are no plans to exterminate the breed.

Dr Tew said: "There are two time-scales here. The first is to preserve the red squirrels we have, and the second is to provide them with the correct environment to thrive, away from the grey squirrels.

"This is going to take us decades, but if we don't do it we will lose the red squirrel for ever."

Britain's other destructive imports

Grey squirrels were brought into Britain from North America in 1876 by a Cheshire landowner who wanted an exotic addition to his estate. Since then, several other exotic breeds have been brought into the country, only to wreak havoc among our indigenous animals.

THE AMERICAN MINK was brought over from America at the turn of the century and bred for its fur. Several escaped after the Second World War and they can now be found all over the country. It is semi-aquatic and lives along the banks of rivers, where it eats water voles and moorhens.

THE MUNTJAC DEER was introduced from China in the early 1900s. The size of a small dog, it is thought to have escaped from the Duke of Bedford's estate at Woburn Abbey. They eat large quantities of bluebells, which are in decline, and will often deprive the native roe deer of food.

THE COYPU was also imported for its fur, but when the fur industry collapsed, many farmers simply released them into the wild. The coypu, a South American rodent, has big yellow teeth and resembles an aggressive beaver. It was exterminated in the late 1980s but only after it had caused severe damage to crops in East Anglia.

THE AMERICAN BULLFROG was probably brought over by enthusiastic animal lovers looking for an exotic pet. However, it grows to about eight inches in size and is then released by the horrified owner. Once out in the wild it feasts on our indigenous frogs.

THE AMERICAN CRAYFISH, introduced as an alternative to British crustaceans, brought disease with it. Those that have escaped from fish farms are spreading a type of plague among the indigenous crayfish.

THE NEW ZEALAND FLATWORM has been a source of grief to gardeners for some years. Believed to have been brought over by mistake in the soil of imported plants, it has proceeded to munch its way through large quantities of earthworms.

Eating a rodent may seem repulsive to most people but there are some who enjoy it - for example in a recipe from Shoot and Cook, by Old Henry.

GREY SQUIRREL WITH PRUNES

Ingredients: 3 squirrels; 2/3 tablespoons of butter; 2 onions; 12 dried prunes; 3 tablespoons of wine vinegar; a pinch of thyme; 1 tablespoon of flour; salt and pepper.

Skin, clean and joint the squirrels and leave them to soak in cold water for 30 minutes. Brown the joints in a large pan and then set aside. Put the onions and butter into the pan and lightly fry. When lightly browned put the squirrel into a casserole with the onions and the fat and add enough water to cover the meat. Add the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

Cook for about one hour, until the meat is tender, then add the prunes, reduce the heat and simmer for about 45 minutes.

Next, make a roux with the stock, blend and add to the casserole and leave to thicken.

Serve with potatoes.

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