Everyone loved Tufty the road safety squirrel. His Furryfolk friends and millions of young fans adored his cute antics as he taught them how to cross the street safely.
Little did they know what lay in store for Tufty Fluffytail because of a different type of squirrel. That interloper was the grey squirrel – and they brought with them a disease deadly to red squirrels.
For Tufty, it was the end of the road.
The adventures of Tufty and the likes of Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin found a special place in the hearts of children and helped establish the red squirrel as a national woodland treasure.
Today, this plucky little forest dweller is now on the brink of extinction in the UK after 10,000 years of living in our forests. In England, the red squirrel has already all but disappeared.
The deadly squirrel virus
Native to the UK, red squirrels were joined in the late 1800s by grey squirrels. The greys were introduced from North America by rich Victorians as an exotic ornamental species to add interest to the grounds of their stately homes.
The American greys didn’t think much of their new life in captivity. The call of the wild soon beckoned and they began to escape, scattering far and wide among our woodlands.
These squirrels carried a disease called squirrel parapox virus, which spread like wildfire among the red squirrel population. Although harmless to greys, the virus kills red squirrels.
Grey squirrels are also bigger and better scavengers, and red squirrels who avoided the fatal disease starved because they could no longer find enough of the acorns and berries crucial to their survival.
Blame the Victorians
The arrival on our shores of the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) sealed the fate of one of our most iconic native animals, the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris).
Because of this, grey squirrels are widely reviled as invading marauders – often referred to as tree rats
But they didn’t ask to be transported here. Neither do they have any control over the disease they carry. And in depleting red squirrel food sources, they’re only doing what comes naturally to survive.
The real blame lies with the self-important wealthy Victorians who brought the grey squirrel here to adorn their country estates. Their misguided belief they could turn grey squirrels into pets triggered the demise of our beloved red squirrel.
That said, there are other, legitimate reasons why we regard grey squirrels as pests.
Problems grey squirrels cause
In the wild, grey squirrels destroy trees by stripping bark, and they damage food crops.
They also invade the roof space of our homes and outbuildings, damaging insulation, pipework, and electrical wiring, as well as the roof itself.
Grey squirrels also wreak havoc in the garden, eating plant bulbs and digging holes in lawns and flower beds to bury food.
If you’re having problems with grey squirrels in the Hampshire or Dorset area, help is available from Pests, Birds and Bugs. Call us on 07388 892414 or get in touch online.
Red squirrel conservation efforts
The last remaining red squirrels in the south of England can be found on Brownsea Island in Dorset and on the Isle of Wight off the Hampshire coast.
Red squirrel conservation projects in these areas are being coordinated by Dorset Wildlife Trust and Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.