Red squirrels choose inner-city for comeback

The red squirrel is making a comeback. But the creature immortalised as Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter is thriving not in green and pleasant Middle England but in inner-city Liverpool.

The red squirrel is making a comeback. But the creature immortalised as Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter is thriving not in green and pleasant Middle England but in inner-city Liverpool.

The numbers of reds has declined dramatically since the introduction to the UK of their grey cousins from the US. Now they have unexpectedly reversed the trend in the most improbable surroundings.

A population of 55 red squirrels is flourishing in 12 acres of woodland in the Liverpudlian district of Fazakerley and spilling over into a cemetery, their territory bordered by a hospital and a prison. They are breeding so successfully that the population is dispersing across Liverpool and setting up home in parks up to five miles away.

The numbers have astonished conservationists, who had thought that the local population of native red squirrels, Sciurus vulgaris, had died out almost 20 years ago. The increase was first noticed by Adrian Leigh, a volunteer for the Wildlife Trusts. "There were one or two and then I did a count last year and there were 22," he said. "Now there are 52."

But the very existence of the squirrels has baffled the Wildlife Trusts. Not only are they reversing the general trend of greys, Sciurus carolinensis, displacing reds but they are actually sharing their woodland with grey squirrels. They are most likely to have come from a population of reds in a nature reserve at Formby on the coast, 10 miles away.

"It is possible that these reds have developed resistance to diseases they could pick up from the greys," said Steve White, a conservation officer for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside Wildlife Trust. "We have no idea why the reds have settled here. We thought we were dealing with a one-off that had somehow hung on but this is a sustained population and not a blip."

The general absence of broad-leafed trees in the park may also work in the reds' favour; they are thought to feed off the shoots and seeds of sycamore trees and seeds from the cones of conifers.

During the past 20 years the red squirrel has suffered one of the most catastrophic declines of any species and has been forced out of many of its strongholds. It is now generally restricted to the Isle of Wight, Brownsea island near Poole in Dorset, and parts of Cumbria and the North-East. Its population is just 160,000, with 120,000 of those in Scotland. The population of grey squirrels, introduced to the UK 100 years ago, now numbers 2.5 million.

Comments