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?