Britain: No more American gray squirrels – we want our reds back

Britain's population of gray squirrels exploded after North Americans introduced them in the 19th century. But now the Isle of Anglesey is fighting back – by mass extermination of grays and bringing back the native reds.

Jordi Bas Casas/Newscom
Red squirrels are native to Britain.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

LONDON – They’re small, furry, and undeniably cute – and yet the explosion of Britain’s nonnative gray squirrel population has long been regarded as a conservation crisis.

But now nature lovers are looking with hope toward the Isle of Anglesey, an island off the northwest coast of Wales, which is the setting for a successful local reintroduction of Britain’s native red squirrel.

An endangered species, their numbers nationwide have been ravaged by a pox carried by the larger, more aggressive grays, which were introduced as living garden ornaments from North America in 1876 by upper-class families.

A project on the island has seen thousands of grays, which are highly destructive of hardwood trees, trapped and removed. Reds (which also have their detractors) have been simultaneously brought back, and conservation groups are hoping to do the same in other peninsulas and islands.

Dr. Craig Shuttleworth of the Anglesey red squirrel conservation project said: “There has been pessimism about how the red squirrel can be brought back, but we are close to succeeding here. It’s true that we have been helped by geography – the fact that we are on an island – but there are lessons that can be applied elsewhere.”

Such projects have not been without controversy, however. Some animal rights supporters opposed the mass killing of grays. Nevertheless, public support has been forthcoming for projects such the Anglesey one.

Dr. Shuttle­worth, whose work is supported by the Prince of Wales, added: “People sometimes ask, ‘What is the point?’ and say that reds are common on the European continent.

"But we can’t lose sight of the fact that reds are a very popular part of our natural fauna here in Britain. If we can’t safeguard them, then what hope do we have in protecting other species which are less popular with the public?”

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