Britain’s embattled red squirrels rescued by native rodent killer pine martens

Thanks to Beatrix Potter’s ­Squirrel Nutkin and road safety mascot Tufty Fluffytail, the red squirrel is one of Britain’s most beloved native animals.

But the once-common creatures could be extinct in 10 years as imported American greys take over their habitats.

However, the reds’ chance of survival has been boosted by an elusive hero – a rodent predator called the pine marten.

Experts say red squirrel numbers are increasing in areas where pine martens also live because they hunt and eat far more non-native grey squirrels.

I joined Ulster Wildlife Trust to see how natural foes have become unwitting allies in Co Fermanagh, the only area in Northern Ireland free of grey squirrels.

It has also allowed woodlands damaged by greys here to recover.

Although we were lucky enough to spot several red squirrels, the nocturnal pine martens were much harder to find.

Katy Bell, senior conservation officer at UWT, said: “Red squirrels here have gained an unusual ally. In Co Fermanagh there are now healthy populations of red squirrels and pine martens, with the two existing alongside each other.”

Pine martens do prey on red squirrels but at a far lower level than greys. One reason is thought to be that pine martens and red squirrels are both native to Europe and evolved together.

Experts think this makes reds more aware of the threat from pine martens than non-native greys.

Pine martens were also once widespread in Britain but declined after decades of persecution by farmers and fur hunters.

Most now have retreated to the remote parts of the Scottish Highlands, with a population of three to four thousand. Ireland has similar numbers.

Four were released in a forest near Bangor, north-west Wales, in July as part of the EU-funded Red Squirrels United project.

The Vincent Wildlife Trust began a landmark project in 2015 to move 51 pine martens to mid-Wales and they are now thriving, with successful breeding every year.

In Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean, 18 pine martens were released in 2019, giving birth to their first kits last year.

Plans for more reintroduction programmes are due to be announced later this year. But Katie Bell warned the red squirrel is still at risk.

Experts also say the pine martin’s fledgling recovery cannot be the sole prospect for the red squirrel’s survival due to its low population densities. Other projects include habitat management, monitoring populations and targeted control of greys in areas where reds are at risk of extinction.

There are now thought to be 120,000 to 160,000, down from 3.5 million when greys first arrived from America in the 1870s.

The population in England is thought to be as low as 15,000 as greys compete for their food. Greys also carry a virus fatal to red squirrels and damage trees.

Red squirrels are vital for woodland health, dispersing seeds for native tree species such as Scots pine.

The Wildlife Trusts said: “Time is running out to save our red squirrels.

“To preserve, they must be kept apart from grey squirrels as the two species cannot live together long term.

“If you have red squirrels visiting your garden you can make life a bit easier by providing food and friendly shrubs.”