Newborough Forest – The Squirrel’s Tale

Newborough Forest is a critical habitat and refuge for red squirrels, a native British species forced to the brink of extinction by more aggressive non-native gray squirrels. If approved, a current plan to restore the original sand dune habitat by clear-cutting up to half the trees in Newborough Forest could also spell disaster for the red squirrels.

The  gray  squirrel  is  like  a  bad  downstairs neighbor:  He  seems  like  a  friendly  guy when he moves in, but soon he’s intruding on your space, borrowing your food, raising a pack of bratty kids, carrying in nasty germs, and playing loud music all night.

Okay, maybe they don’t play music. But the  North  American  gray  squirrel—first introduced to England in 1876 as a novelty species, now numbering some 2.5 million throughout the U.K.—is running the native red squirrel off its home turf. Red squirrels are now almost extinct in Wales and England, though they’re hanging on in parts of Cumbria,  Northumberland,  and  Scotland. It’s not that grays are attacking the smaller, tufted-ear   red   squirrels—they   simply evolved  in  a  more  competitive  econiche.  Reds  spend  up  to  70%  of  their  time  up  in trees,  preferably  conifers,  and  hate  to cross  open  ground;  grays  spend  85%  of their  time  foraging  on  the  ground,  like either  deciduous  or  conifer  woods,  and will travel up to 2km without tree cover. As Britain’s  old-growth  spruce  and  pine  forests  were  increasingly  replaced  with  oak trees (grays love acorns; reds can’t digest them),   the   red   squirrel   was   doomed. Fences  replaced  the  protective  foliage  of hedgerows,  so  reds  no  longer  had  corridors to move from one woods to another. Opportunistic grays, who survive the winter  by  beefing  up  in  autumn,  raided  the precious food caches red squirrels needed to get through winter. And the final blow: Grays  carry  a  squirrelpox  virus,  which they’re immune to, but which will kill a red squirrel in 2 weeks.

Red squirrels are still common through-out   continental   Europe   (though   grays released  in  Italy  are  beginning  to  repeat the U.K. scenario). But they’re a woodland species  particularly  dear  to  Britons,  and their  plight  has  been  watched  anxiously. It’s  been  illegal  to  import  gray  squirrels since  1930,  but  the  damage  was  already done.  It’s  been  illegal  to  kill  red  squirrels since  1981,  but  that’s  not  enough.  They need more conifer forest havens, which is what  they’ve  found  in  the  Newborough Forest, in Wales’s Isle of Anglesey.

Isolated from the mainland by the Menai Strait, Anglesey began with an aggressive gray-squirrel  extirpation  program,  and  in 2004 reintroduced red squirrels—brought from Yorkshire, Cumbria, and Scotland, for a healthy genetic mix—to this 750-hectare (1,853-acre)   forest   park,   where   they’d been  extinct  since  1996.  Newborough  is mostly  thick  stands  of  Corsican  pines, planted in the 1940s and 1950s to protect the  wide  beaches  and  coastal  dunes  of adjacent  Llanddwyn  Island.  A  number  of walking  trails  lead  into  the  dusky  woods; as you stroll around, listen for the rustle of squirrels in the branches and look for nest boxes,  built  to  enhance  breeding  rates, and feeders put out to supplement winter food caches.

At   present   Anglesey’s   red   squirrel population  has  boomed  to  over  200—nearly half of all the red squirrels in Wales may now be on this one small island. But in late  2007,  a  new  deadly  virus  killed  three squirrels.  Animal  lovers  are  holding  their breaths—will  this  Cinderella  story  end  in tragedy?